April 1, 2024

Artist to Watch


Portrait of Mickey Lee in her studio in Mexico City. Image courtesy of the artist. 

NB: So what are some of your earliest memories of art? What aspects of those early encounters remain relevant to your practice today?

ML: My earliest experiences with art are with my father. He is a woodworker and he had his own shop, so I would often go with him while he was working. To keep me occupied he would give me scraps of whatever was around, whether it was paper or pieces of wood. He had those pencils that carpenters use that are kind of flat and fat and thick or leftover house paint, just sort of whatever materials were there. Anything to keep my hands busy. 

Also, when I was young, I struggled with speaking. Although I knew how – I refused to. So my dad realized that my way of communicating or to see what was happening within me and if I was OK was through my drawings. I credit him a lot for having that as a method of communication and it was something that just continued to develop. 

The imagery in my work has a very honest, uninhibited quality to it, so maybe not much has changed from those early encounters. 

Mickey Lee, Untitled, oil on canvas, 17 x 14 in, 2024. 

NB: Great! So let’s talk a little bit about your process. How do you approach each new painting? 

ML: That’s a good question. That’s a tough question. I draw almost every day, almost every morning. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, it’s sort of my version of note taking. So if I have something going on in my brain, putting it to paper is the first thing I do. And then when I’m approaching a canvas, I look through my “notes”, my studies, and I kind of flesh out what story is being told and what images and characters are speaking to each other. 

I think storytelling is really what my work is rooted in. Each piece is sort of its own ‘fable’. The story unfolds as I move through the canvas and build out these characters and the world they live in. I don’t always know where I’m going. It almost feels like working with a block of clay, you’re taking things out and then you’re putting things back in, there’s a push and pull to the painting. I’m surprised by it sometimes, just as much as the viewer. The paintings, moreso the figures, reveal themselves as I keep painting, I often feel as though I’m under their lead. 

Mickey Lee, Untitled, oil on canvas, 24 x 19 in, 2024.

NB: Can you tell us about the way you portray the female body in your paintings and the characters that surround it, like the rabbits, the babies, wolves, and spiders? 

ML: The figures are kind of me and kind of not. They’re an idea of something, whether it’s something ugly or beautiful, that is how they take shape. I enjoy playing with the idea of the nude figure, especially if I see myself in it, being distorted and exaggerated. I like them a little grotesque. You have to remember that the word grotesque is not necessarily a synonym with “gross” but an umbrella term for strange, mysterious, magnificent, as well as disturbing or ugly. That is how I feel. That is how this world is, and theirs too. Strange, mysterious, magnificent, disturbing and ugly. 

Now the animals – I simply love them. They are fantastic story tellers, they’re such an excellent vehicle for conveying things that are unpleasant without being overtly salacious. They’re just as much, if not more, of the narrators of the painting. 

Mickey Lee, Arachnid Embrace, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in, 2023. 

NB: Where do you draw your inspiration from? What are some artists or aspects of life that are significant to you and your practice alike? 

ML: Expanding on what I was discussing before with the animals- you know how Cecily Brown was able to do these orgy scenes with rabbits, right? Even though it is a violent orgy scene, it’s more palatable because they’re bunnies. I like that trickiness and I am always attracted to something that has a dark undertone or that is immediately unsettling. I want to be challenged. I enjoy having to visually dig through an image and having to keep coming back to it. I think a really great living artist that does that and who also explores sort of this mad genius ugliness is Dana Schutz. 

Although my favorite artist in the entire world is, Maud Lewis, a folk artist from Nova Scotia. She too painted lots of animals in the bright and cheery landscapes of her home. The work is nostalgic though, there is something that makes your heart cry a little bit. Perhaps it is the honesty. I think she was ahead of her time. 

I love pretty things like rabbits and trees and flowers, but I also want my stomach to turn a little bit, you know? 

Mickey Lee, Untitled, oil on canvas, 5 x 9 in, 2024.

NB: So, you moved to New York last year and you’re now in Mexico City. What’s next? What are some future projects, exhibitions, or places that you’ll be visiting that you would like to share with us? 

ML: Right now, yes, I am working in Mexico City. Though I return to New York in April, and all of the work I’ve made here will be coming back with me which is exciting. As for the near future, I have a small solo in East Hampton that I am very excited about, as well as a show in Stockholm with Loyal Gallery at the end of summer. The future looks bright, I get to keep painting, which is all I can ask for!