Review: Nikki S. Lee

Nikki S. Lee: Projects, Parts and Layers, One in J, May 19 – June 19, 2011

You may be familiar with Nikki S. Lee’s work. She is the artist who has posed herself as a variety of personas, in pictures that show the shifting mores of everyday American life. Ostensibly aiming to demarcate the space of identity, Lee’s pictures were at the end of the 90s sign of the post-feminist post-ideological phase that the art world began occupying after the supposed demise of feminism and the decline of postmodernism. While it may be true that postmodernism, at times nauseatingly reflexive, sometimes gave us all a headache, for its semantics, deconstructions and its categorical political correctness, the period provided a chance to examine, criticize and even shape the discourse and outcomes of the world we inhabited. Post-feminism’s offer of freedom from the grinding orthodoxies helped obliterate more than restriction, in turn it also removed argument and discourse. If postmodernism was diagnostic, post-feminism has been ignorant of the effects of its unmitigated free for all of girls gone wild. The results can be seen in the unruly likes of Sarah Palin, and the misguided politics of Slut Walk brand feminism.[i] In essence, the late 90s unleashed a desire to be free of thought and consciousness, evident in the torpor from the prosperity and scandal of the Clinton years, still leading to a more ideological landscape, far more divisive than the postmodern era. It is then perplexing as to what relevance Lee’s works possess at this time. The works on view at One and j this summer did not offer her viewers a thoughtful examination of women, but are rather a retrospective of a past—a history of our neglected story in the guise of attention given.

If Lee’s work encapsulates a moment, where does it fit into culture, now? Making images, in a variety of pedestrian female personas, she has attempted to represent the multiplicity that the self can be in society. Earlier incarnations of her work addressed female identity, especially racial identity as shifting and uncertain. Today perhaps her process is far too obvious to be seen as politicized or radical as it previously had been, however loosely these critiques were constructed by the artist. Largely responsible for this shift in the reception or rather perception of her works is that her posing has taken on an air of self-indulgence and narcissism that wasn’t announce so obviously in the early days of her project. Moreover, the dogmatism that has accompanied the post 9-11 landscape recasts what may have once been seen as an exploration of identity in her documentarian action, or rather acting, as some sort of trickery or game. Questions have arisen as to her intent. How close does she get to the kind of woman she is portraying? Does she fool the viewer? Or are the images a let down? Where is the slippage? Is the context recognizable? Moreover, what is the point? There is a sense that her work betrays a fascination with her own image, especially since although she constructs the personas; she does not take the pictures. As a photographer, that definition would add a critical distance and implication pointing to a prior analysis as to the outcomes. Instead, by using a strategy she calls amateur, she waits to see what the actual photographer captures. This kind of randomness ought to point to something more critical, like the relationship between seen and seer, but in the end, although she is the producer, the personas are less a critique and more a model or subject enjoying attention. Ultimately, the veracity of her claim on body politics or even identity politics is weakened by the shifting mores of society, both in terms of interaction and definition of these categories. As well, Projects, especially, without criticality can be seen as exploitative, even colonizing of the people in the groups she utilizes.

According to One and J’s press release Nikki S. Lee’s work is both benign and radical. The camera has never been a benign apparatus and certainly its operators have always been complicit in the mechanism’s output. As for radical, that is a grand claim, without foundation. What Lee’s work belies is the impossibility of these two categorizations, which her work visibly summarizes. If there is one point of contention that merits reflection in these images, it may be the individual biases or recognitions the viewer reflects back on these images, which may after all tell a tale far more critical and grim than any that Lee intends.

reviewed by Julia Marsh


[i] Rebecca Traister. “Ladies We Have a Problem”. the New York Times online. July 20, 2011 <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/magazine/clumsy-young-feminists.html?pagewanted=1&ref=magazine> accessed July 23, 2011
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