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Memphis Flyer Tom Lee Spark

Spark, hell. Memphis artist Tom Lee catches fire

By Cory Dugan

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  Tom Lee claims to subscribe to something he calls "The 5 Percent Theory," which states that only 5 percent of an artist's production is worthy. If the theory is true for Lee, he must have a sizeable warehouse loaded with below-par work to compensate for the superb exhibit currently at Cooper Street Gallery.

Lee envisions the exhibit as a three-part narrative, each room of the gallery a separate installation, each installation comprising individual pieces, some pieces subdivided into distinct and divisible parts. There is a suggestion of fluid and perhaps interchangeable arrangement in some of the works; I personally could not envision a more evocative arrangement than the one provided by the artist. In some instances, component pieces were for sale separately; after viewing them together, it would seem to me like splitting siblings into separate families.

I would not attempt to decipher or translate Lee's intended narrative in these pieces -- be it personal or simply arcane, it is best left to the interpretation of each individual viewer. Lee gives the viewer more than enough fuel to ignite even the most conventional imagination. Large, wooden heads -- delicately hacked, crudely precise -- seem to be mired in the floor of the front galleries, still breathing, chopped off just below the nose. White plastic strapping, woven like rattan into mummified torsos, hangs from the wall above the heads, mounted to irregularly-shaped, painted-wood "canvases." In Cathead/Mummy, a cat's head sprouts from the human one; the "mummy" above references the mummified cats of ancient Egypt. Next to it is Honker Seat/Mummy. Atop the floorbound head is a small chair, smooth and linear in contrast to its rough-hewn base, an archaic pressure-horn meticulously painted on its seat, the "mummy" above in the form of a classical Greek male torso.

Aside from the heads and the mummies, Lee's allegory is populated by smaller carved figures reminiscent in style and size of antique toys and dolls, suggesting circus and burlesque characters. In Cabinet Boy, a male figure hides (watches from?) inside a sarcophagus-shaped wooden cupboard, holding one ball and balancing atop another. He is flanked by Pinkboy and Pinkboy 2, small nudes painted pink and perched in diving position at the apex of heavy-but-narrow slot-like frames. Nearby, in Booted, a small female figure perches precariously at the edge of a tall, elongated pyramid, a cowboy boot budding from her head.

From woven plastic to the smallest carved figure, Tom Lee is obviously in command of his media, equally at ease with a chainsaw and the finest of rasps. Wood is obviously Lee's favored medium; he approaches it with finesse and familiarity. He is also, not surprisingly, a skilled painter and draftsman, accomplishing finishes and surfaces that sometimes approximate fine marquetry, at others demonstrating painterly, expressionist aplomb. Mare and Tightrope, both more two- than three-dimensional, are easily among the best paintings exhibited locally this year.

This is work rich in both character and content. It is filled with a dark whimsy, with both wit and weight. It reads like an enigmatic and subtly wicked children's fable, ripe with smiling nightmares and hidden threats. It laughs through clenched teeth, deftly juggles round balls with sharp edges, quietly commanding the thinking viewer's attention.

As a casual but continued admirer of Tom Lee's work, I have been waiting for the defining exhibition. It was well worth the wait.

A BRIEF AND BELATED, "BY-THE-way" commentary. Since the flap over the now-infamous "Elvis 20/20" non-exhibit, many have asked for my take on the affair. I have to admit, maybe I'm jaded, but I didn't get nearly as upset as many of my friends and colleagues. There's a difference between censorship and chickenshit and the actions of Delta Axis were the latter. Which I found less than surprising. Delta Axis is an organization that has been at best aimless and usually just pointless, whose transience and erratic operation have rendered it nearly mythical, whose curatorial direction has ranged from incomprehensible to inconsequential. It sat dormant for over a year, rumored dead, a couple of people noticed, and then it surfaced suddenly with a show about Elvis. In Memphis. In August. Obviously it didn't spend its sabbatical engaged in original thought. What's my take on the "Elvis 20/20" controversy? I'm cheering the redneck Elvis fans. At least they believe in something enough to stand up for it. Delta Axis made a serious mistake. Not just in closing the Elvis show. By outliving its integrity.

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