When Pittsburgh-based artist Bovey Lee visits her native Hong Kong, her friends treat her like a tourist. Things have changed there since she moved to the United States in 1993.
“It’s a very strange feeling, when you go home, you have to find your way again,” she says. When she left to pursue an MFA in painting and drawing at the University of California, Berkeley, Hong Kong was still under British rule.
“I received a very European education,” Lee explains. “Hong Kong is considered ‘Westernized Chinese.’ … It is ethnically diverse. There are still a lot of Chinese traditions.”
One of them is the art of paper cutting, which dates all the way back to the sixth century. Traditionally, cut-paper artworks depicted everyday life.
“Subject matters are around the lives of peasants,” Lee says. “What’s happening in a village, zodiac animals, children, life around the farm, women’s lives, fairy tales, festive images for new years.”
Lee pays homage to this tradition while using it to chronicle the present from her own vantage point. She’ll clock in for long days, slicing shapes and lines into a poster-sized piece of rice paper. Without depending on texture or color, she’ll carve out tiny, suited swimmers high-diving off piles of jellyfish, arranged into a mushroom-cloud shape, rising from the base of an office chair.
The monochrome formality her work gives off at first glance starts to crack as you begin to notice detail after detail, culled from cultural sources Lee has absorbed from history, media, and real-life, till they quietly add up to a barely containable avalanche of referents, piled on top of each other: snowflakes, grenades, comic-style lightning bolts and starbursts, hundreds of tentacles dangling from those jellyfish, with bicycles, clowns, and shopping carts tangled up in them, all tethered, or maybe untethered, by chains and manacles, which look as much like jewelry as they do like manacles.
If this sounds like a potential assault on the viewer’s eyes or political sensibilities, amazingly, it isn’t. Lee’s detailed output is more like a reporter’s or diarist’s than an opinion-maker’s.
“Growing up,” she says, “I learned to embrace all of these things.” She says she learned to constantly negotiate and process cultural influences and assimilate them into her world view.
She started out with a natural tendency toward jam-packed images. She says, “Hong Kong is very overcrowded. Things are on top of each other. That explains why my work is so compact. I’m used to no room around you, things on top of you.”
Lee says that in the years after she moved to the United States, as Hong Kong was being returned to China and she was witnessing and experiencing different and changing versions of what democracy and freedom meant from a few perspectives at once, things felt, “very up in the air.” As soon as she arrived in California, things she was drawing began floating in the mid-air themselves.
Almost two decades and two masters degrees later—she also earned an MFA from Pratt Institute in digital graphics—her work is a visual balancing act.
She says, “Over time and through maturity, I came to terms with all the different terms or contradictions. A lot of times with written words, when you verbally communicate something you get lost.”
To keep from getting lost, Lee hunches over a piece of paper with a tiny knife blade for eight or 10 hours a day, for weeks or months on end, taking care not to lose sight of a single detail.
She says, about both the physical and intellectual experience of making her work: “It gives me that comfort that I can express not literally.”