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Rosie Lee: Dandy Fresh, Dressed to Impress
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
Artists have become a new “priestly class” in their ability to identify globalistic trends and bring new ideas to the forefront. This process has included many different formats, but one consistent method has been the incorporation of other creative fields into their art practice, from architecture and graphic design to fashion and food.
Many artists are beginning to understand the powerful combination of incorporating fashion trends and aesthetics into figurative works. This natural fit between the exploration of the human figure and the items which adorn it makes a great deal of sense, but can also lead to many deeper issues in relation to identity, sociological trends, and politics. From artists like Marilyn Minter to Yinka Shonibare and Nick Cave, fashion is becoming more and more important in the way that we see ourselves and others. Locally, there are a number of artists with Fort Wayne connections who are working with aspects of this, but none as elegantly as Rosie Lee.
Rosie Lee is a Kalamazoo, Michigan based artist who formerly lived in Fort Wayne, and is native to Texas. With a practice primarily based in mixed media painting on canvas and paper, Rosie Lee’s work discusses the identity of both African and African-American communities. Lee’s work can be compared to a number of different contemporary artists, but stays original and fresh in part to exploring this heavily unexplored territory, but also by pushing the formal boundaries of painting itself. This takes the form of moving to works painted on pieces of cloth which are shaped to frame and occlude the picture plane itself. In pieces like “Fresh Dressed Like a million Tusks,” and “100 Miles and Running for Black Models,” Lee chooses cloth which is heavily patterned and textured which would be intended for use in the construction of utilitarian structures (clothing, bedding, etc), but then paints into them a distinct picture plane, and a complex image unto itself. Through the installation of the work, Lee then shapes the excess fabric around the image itself pulling it up and around the image, pulling the painting into the viewer’s physical space which also makes the piece into a sculptural installation as much as a painting.
Other works, like “Spoiled on Life/Dandy Fresh to Death,” and “No Ateliers/Hand Stitch Imaginations” are works on paper and unlike other pieces, take on a more casual presence, like ideas which have to get out quickly to further inform the other more studio paintings which take on a more labored presence. These works on paper remind the viewer of artists like Laylah Ali and others who draw the eye in quite tight to see the body language, nuanced facial recognition, and detailed patterning of clothing on their figures. In these pieces, Lee’s work speaks volumes through the interactions and isolation of his figures, as they inhabit a mostly undefined space in the picture plane. In “No Ateliers…” Lee backs up the figure, a fashionable young women donning glasses and a head wrap among other identifiers, with an abstract field that reminds the viewer of the orientation a mural or other piece of street art work take if this image were pulled from a fashion blog like the Sartorialist. These subtle decisions in Lee’s method of representing figures and their fashions producing something much larger than the sum of their parts. The viewer is able to relate to not only the image they are seeing, but the characters they are witnessing as well. We begin to make character judgments about them based on their dress and stance, and when the viewer is reflective, we realize the way we relate to each other in the real world through our judgments of these images.
Overall, Rosie Lee’s work explores the sense of style and representation of a contemporary African-American individual with that of the “Smarties” of South Africa and the “Dandies” of the Congo. Lee’s website includes the following, "Dandy
Fresh" is more than a trendy phrase to describe the lifestyle and artwork of Rosie Lee but a philosophy birthing a movement that demonstrates how the struggle of African people is not defined by, nor limited to socioeconomic circumstances confirming the message, "class doesn't apply to style." In this way, Rosie Lee’s work acts as a subversive tool for social justice without any overtones or blatant imagery. It brings up questions about the way we relate to people of a different culture and people who have dark skin. Audiences of all ethnic background, including African-Americans are asked to compare themselves to the wide array of characters which Rosie Lee represents. We are asked to think about the symbols we wear, the conversations we are having with each other without words based on the way we dress and present ourselves, and ultimately how differences are true and real, and not something to hide from or diminish in a “all people are made equal”, but in a celebration of our differences and our struggle to live a life in an equitable state with each other.
Rosie Lee’s work reminds us of the strength of fashion, and the ever-present room for new expression in the art world even in the face of postmodernism. Lee leaves us with a simple phrase to help us with this reminder, “Fashion is everywhere, but style is everything.”
For more information:
“Rosie Lee: The Dandy Fresh Collection”
Wunderkammer Company & Jennifer Ford Art
May 14-July 1, 2016