JOSHUA LEE’S PUFFY CLUB-KID INSPIRED SCULPTURES
by Evan Moffitt
Published in Issue 2 of Gayletter, April 2015
Joshua Lee’s art practice inhabits a fantastical dreamworld. His sculptures are creatures of his febrile imagination, great beautiful profusions of multicolored fabric and glittering ornament. They recall what Aldous Huxley once wrote of the hallucinatory unconscious: “Like the giraffe and the duckbilled platypus, the creatures inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of observation.”
Lee’s sculptures are like a toddler’s toy box bricolage, masses of mangled Beanie Babies and plush pillows forming phallic tendrils that reach out in every direction. Velvet, silk, cotton, and polyester clump together in dense thickets that threaten to grow mutant and amoebic. They resemble Yayoi Kusama’s fabric sculptures of the early 1960s, household furniture covered in stubby, protruding fingerlike pillows. Kusama’s interventions made everyday objects queer; Lee’s sculptures, on the other hand, are queer from their very conception. Exuberantly kitschy, if not a little camp, they explode across bodies and rooms in supernovas of shimmering cloth. Their forms are alien, hybrid, bizarre—like deep-sea creatures of the deep subconscious. Lee gives them titles that hint at their figural models: Septapus, Macro nano bot, Baby toy for alien. But these are just further examples of the artist’s whimsy, meant not to directly reference a natural form but rather let one’s mind wander through fantastical, dreamlike pastures.
Lee grew up in Colorado, where his mother, a quilter, taught him how to sew. “I make three-dimensional quilts,” he says. “I like being in the pop art world, but the world of quilting is also interesting to me. It’s such a traditional way of expressing yourself that can be modern and beautiful too.” Although his art practice began as a hobby, Lee has created hundreds of sculptures in a wide variety of scales over the last fifteen years, some requiring a tremendous amount of detailed and dedicated labor. The opalescent lunar orb in Sun, moon and stars, for instance, is covered in hundreds of tiny seashells and glittering urchin-like puffballs, the kind exposed on sandy shores by the moon at low tide, all sewn into a fabric ball over more than a hundred hours. Such intense labor makes Lee’s sculptures a part of his own body, interwoven with his personal sweat and touch.
Lee cites the documentary portrait photography of Phyllis Galembo and the tribal art-influenced “sound suits” of Nick Cave as major influences. He’s also inspired by the outlandish DIY fashion of 1990s club kids. Like those party provocateurs, Lee gets his materials anywhere he can find them. A pattern-setting company next to his studio discards heaps of fabric that he digs through for curious and colorful scraps. He’s even stolen a vinyl poster of naked men from a porn shop to cut up and sew into soft, tentacular forms. His sculptures take shape through a long, additive process. Lee often uses pieces from older works, and the finished products can be very different than what he originally envisioned. He embraces this chance element: “It’s a very natural, fluid process.”
Some works—cotton-stuffed hoods and headdresses like knobbly, tangled cacti roots, for example—were made specifically as props for photo and video collaborations with provocative queer artist-partners Slava Mogutin and Brian Kenny, whose erotic and irreverent collective SUPERM has often featured Lee, along with queer talents like Bruce LaBruce, Vaginal Davis, and Gio Black Peter. In SUPERM’s short film Heaven and Hell, for instance, porn superstar François Sagat reads poems by Arthur Rimbaud while wearing several of Lee’s colorful headpieces.
As an explicitly three-dimensional art form, sculpture is designed to be experienced in the flesh. Lee makes tactile objects, intricately beaded or velvety-soft to the touch, as much about the way they interact with bodies as their final appearance. Although Lee hasn’t formally exhibited his work yet, in his collaborations with SUPERM he’s found a way around the limitations of photography’s two-dimensionality by incorporating live models, occasionally himself. Neither fully art nor fully fashion but something in between, the sculptures become bodies as they move around the skins of live ones like great, fantastical carapaces. Wearing his sculptures, Lee quite literally becomes a part of his art, folded into the soft shells of his wild and outlandish dreams.