Mike Lee

Mike Lee (b. 1983 in Placentia, CA; lives and works in New York) received his BFA at Otis College of Art and Design, CA. Lee’s work has been exhibited at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA; the Honolulu Museum of Art in Honolulu, HI; the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles, CA; and many more.
September 28, 2021
Tell us about your practice.
Through my work I am exploring the ideas of how memory is shaped from the experiences of our past. The fracturing and breaking up of form in my work reflect the way we remember aspects of our life and the constant flux it is in relative to the present. Recollections from my childhood play a big part in my work and as I reach back to those memories the more I get a better understanding of myself.
Perhaps most iconic to your work is your exclusive use of grayscale. Can you talk a little bit about why you’ve chosen that as your color palette?
Early on there were a number of directions I wanted to explore with my work. But choosing to simplify and limit the palette kept me focused and tapered my mind from spiraling. There’s also an immediate nostalgic quality it brings to the paintings and combining that with computer generated shadows and gradients allow the work to pull between the past and present which I really like.
Your most recent body of work “Under the Lemon Tree” feels a lot more grounded in biographical narratives. Can you talk a little bit about what shifted for you in working in this new direction?
For me it was a natural shift. Once I complete a body of work, I usually make the effort of introducing a new element or shifting my perspective. In my previous work the figures were depicted drifting in an ambiguous and undefined space. It mirrored a lot of insecurities going on in my life at the time. I was transitioning from having a steady income job to an uncertain future pursuing a painting career. Placing the figure in a grounded setting now reflects the confidence of this new direction.
You’ve mentioned how you didn’t come from a formal art education background. How did you come to become a full-time painter?
I was a designer in the film/animation industry for over a decade. My focus was utilizing color and light to convey mood and emotion throughout the film. It was a significant part of my life, but my dream was to pursue a painting career. Over the years I would carve out any free time to paint in my apartment. The decision came to fully commit when I was offered an opportunity to show my work and felt as though I had to devote myself wholeheartedly to my practice.
Can you talk a little bit about how you developed your practice and process along the way?
The film industry was an incredible training ground for figuring out how to be efficient with your time and objectively view your work. During the early stages, I do my best not to rush through ideas or consider anything as precious. If a sketch or study doesn’t feel right I’ll either give it time and revisit the image, or I’m happy to scrap the idea altogether. However when executing and making the actual painting, 
I have a regimented structure so it’s a fairly smooth and straightforward process.
You’ve dabbled a little in 3D sculptures — are there any other mediums that you are interested in? Anything we can look forward to seeing?
As of now I am just focusing on painting and sculptures. But if there is a purpose or intent, I would love to devote time to explore other mediums.

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