We are super excited to have Kerry Ann Lee join our expert judges panel for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize this year. Kerry Ann Lee is a visual artist, designer and educator with a background in graphic art, from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She creates multi-media installations, print and image-based art and explores themes of urban settlement and culture clash occurring in the Asia-Pacific region in her work. We crossed the oceans to catch up with Kerry Ann and find out about her work, influences, processes and what advice she has for entrants to the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize this year.
Above Image: There is no romance without the rain, 2014, Kerry Ann Lee, Archival pigment print (edition of 5), 64 x 77 cm, Image courtesy of Whitespace Contemporary Art.
Clare: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of creating your most recent exhibition, Return to Skyland, at National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa?
Kerry Ann: Te Papa commissioned me to create a response to the Chinese Terracotta Warriors exhibition that’s currently on in Wellington, New Zealand. My work Return to Skyland exists as room in the heart of the main show as a place to pause and ponder. This large-scale multi-media art installation features wallpaper, furnishings and a single-channel video projection, plus tea and snacks for guests who visit between 12-3pm on the weekends. It began with the retelling of a dream that my father had, where he travelled to Xian. This was brought to life through collaging pictorial treasures sourced from books, print ephemera, Chinese objects from Te Papa’s Collections online and a poem by writer and activist, Rewi Alley called ‘Looking Over Sian at Night’.
The work references my family’s cultural ties to China through books and images, but also historic taonga (treasures) belonging to the Cantonese community in Aotearoa, New Zealand. But people can read or take away what they want from it. They might enjoy surface encounters of the wallpaper tickling their eyeballs, or perhaps have some ‘insider knowledge’ or connection with some of the illustrated and photographic images featured, from kids, ducks, butterflies, Bruce Lee, firecracker packaging, communist ballerinas and comic book heroes. It’s a chance for people to rest for a moment while taking in the thousand years of history they are time-travelling through in the main exhibition. I enjoyed collaborating with the Toi Arts team. There were lots of stakeholders and it was well-received upon launching when I arrived back from Los Angeles in December. The show seems busy given that it’s the height of summer here when the last thing you’d want to do is be inside a dark museum.
Clare: As an artist whose work exists across a broad scope of what could be considered modern media, do you maintain any traditional fine art practices ie. drawing, painting?
Kerry Ann: Home Made (2008), my artist book features hand-made, mixed-media and digital collages, reflective of my design practice which is a hybrid of photography, printmaking, drawing, collage, assemblage and digital illustration. I enjoy learning rules in order to break them. There was a point in developing work for that project where I’d build and paint cardboard dioramas and then set them on fire. These were featured in my first gallery installation atop of a dirt-covered floor in the gallery. I also used to teach traditional watercolour painting and drawing and I still continue to draw with ink, but people don’t see the drawings, just the refined digital and print pieces.
Clare: How do you record the genesis of an idea? Can you describe your process following on from there?
Kerry Ann: My ideas sometimes come from dreams, conversations, or after a long walk or a run. I record them by writing, drawing and collecting imagery. I’ll explore visual elements, mood, tone, audience and lasting sensations long before anything concrete takes shape. Sometimes composition sketches are helpful, other times they’re not. I keep a lot of lists of things I’m looking for that must be in my compositions and cross them off, and edit them as I work.
Clare: Have there been any painters, contemporary or historical, that have had a significant influence on your work? If so, how?
Kerry Ann: I’m not sure about direct influences but perhaps someone like Rene Magritte has been insightful in my image-making with his use of semiotics and visual language. Aotearoa, New Zealand has a rich cannon of contemporary painters include Francis Hodgkins, Len Lye, Ralph Hotere, Rita Angus, Jacqueline Fahey, Ruffo de Graine, Rob McLeod, Luise Fong, Simon Kaan, John Pule, Alexis Hunter, Liz Maw, Andrew McLeod, Nick Austin, Matt Hunt… Kim Pieters, Saskia Leek and Kushana Bush are some of my favourite painters here, based in Dunedin where I used to lived.
Clare: I have read about your interest in Dada and Surrealism and how it has influenced your work, specifically your collages. Which artists from this movement had the biggest impact on you?
Kerry Ann: Pioneers like Meret Oppenheim, Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Max Ernst and László Moholy-Nagy are celebrated for being very generative, playful, savvy in transforming ordinary ephemeral images into extraordinary things. Barbara Kruger, John Stezaker, Gee Vaucher and Winston Smith are also worth honourable mentions.
Clare: If you could share a pot of tea in your ‘dreamscape transit lounge’ installation with any artist in the world, from any point in time, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Kerry Ann: So many contenders from the post-life: Katherine Mansfield, Italo Calvino, Poly Styrene, Ray Eames, Jim Henson, Kurt Cobain… Georgia O’Keeffe springs to mind because as well as having recently visited New Mexico, I’m reading the first volume of her published letters with Alfred Stieglitz. She writes so eloquently and lovingly about her life and career, and her desire for both independence from and connection with places and people. It totally altered my impression of her as “the artist who painted the large erotic flowers”.
Clare: How important do you think awards and competitions are for artists today?
Kerry Ann: Difficult to say. They exist as opportunities for artists to ‘get their work out of the studio and into the world’, which is a good and vital thing. Working as an artist is not easy, and you’re constantly pushing against perceptions, expectations and self-doubt. It’s a chancy thing to enter competitions and awards, but if it’s genuinely of interest, go for it, otherwise it’s just status quo if you don’t. No risk, no gain. At the very least you get more experience and closer to determining their value and place in your own practice.
Clare: Do you have any advice for artists out there thinking about entering Jackson’s Open Painting Prize this year?
Kerry Ann: There are so many different types of artists out there from those working commercially, exhibiting to varing degrees of success, those just learning, working undercover, in design studios, working in collectives, as artisans, on remote islands with poor internet, painting film sets or community murals. Regardless of discipline, background, age, stage, ability or acclaim, my advice is aim to make good work and believe in your practice. People will always have opinions, but at the end of the day, your work is remarkable because you made something unique to you. Also worth quoting Chuck D via my colleague Karl who shared this with our students recently: “Don’t let a win get to your head, and a loss to your heart.”
Clare: What will you be looking for in the entries submitted?
Kerry Ann: Work that is memorable, that adopts fresh approaches, has a sense of care, vitality and dedication regardless of style, scale, medium or application.
Clare What are you working on at the moment and where can we see more of your work online?
Kerry Ann: I’ve just reviewed Hannah Salmon’s exhibition, The Modern Alpha for an upcoming issue of Hamster Magazine. I’m getting ready to deliver some gallery talks in Dunedin (DPAG) and Wellington (City Gallery) and preparing for the first semester back at the School of Design at the College of Creative Arts at Massey University. On the horizion are a couple of public art commissions in New Zealand and invitations to show in Hong Kong, Mexico and a few other places. I am atomised on the internet! You can see my work Return to Skyland at Te Papa until 22 April, as cover art for books by Victoria University Press written about via Hainamana, EyeContact and The Big Idea with works available through Whitespace Contemporary Art and Bartley Art + Company.
All images of Kerry Ann Lee’s artwork are copyright of the artist and may not be used without the express permission of the artist.
Feeling inspired? Check out the competitions website here: www.jacksonspaintingprize.com for more information or to enter the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019.