Lee’s debut book for cult publisher Baron Books brings together the artist’s most sexually provocative, surreal images
Ripe fruit, agape nuns, oysters, Cherry Chapsticks, and pearl necklaces… Joyce Lee’s artworks are fecund with provocative symbolism. Her surrealist assemblages, created using classical watercolour painting and pencil, are holy and profane, uniting elements of high culture with trash, sex, and humour.
While often calling upon overt religious imagery, Lee’s works frequently treats the naked body as a literal landscape upon which other stories unfold. Inspired by Dalí and Magritte alongside her favourite horror films, the Korean artist sexualises or anthropomorphises seemingly innocuous objects in her ongoing exploration of gender and sexuality. Her scenes are rich in “breast-like fruits and genital-like fish” as waterfalls flow between splayed, giant legs and a tiny man reclines in a hammock formed from a pair of panties pulled taught between a pair of colossal thighs. She tells Dazed, “I want the viewer to be taken to a place of the subconscious.”
Lee’s eponymous debut book [published by Baron Books] delves into her more recent archive to bring together selected works made over the last four years. Like a portal to a parallel world of Lee’s imagination, the artist hopes that the book will offer people an “escape from reality”; an alternative, playful but disorientating world that toys not only with scale but with preconceived expectations. “Throughout my work, the viewer can observe combinations of disparate times and spaces or the presence of unusual objects in my work, which at first glance look strange and create an alienating feeling,” she explains in a conversation over email. “This sensation of being challenged in the way we normally see and experience the world is something I love, both in art and literature.”
Take a closer look at her work in the gallery above. Below, Joyce Lee shares her thoughts on Instagram’s unjust censorship of artists, talks us through her creative rituals, and reveals her intention of penetrating your psychic terrain.
Please could you introduce us to the landscape/psychic terrain which your work depicts?
Joyce Lee: The human body is a medium for me to tell various stories about relationships, sex, beauty, love, acceptance and even arguments around the body itself. My drawing style is closer to surrealism than realism, and I prefer to explore metaphors and symbolism, rather than portraying sex realistically. I also explore themes of gender, identity, equality, and sometimes empowerment through visual metaphors. I want the women inside my art to be liberated and I want them to express their feelings freely with their bodies.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Joyce Lee: I have been fascinated by Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, the great surrealist artists of the 20th century. Like Dali, I strive to create provocative content by using classical watercolour painting and pencil drawing techniques to perfect the texture and lighting in each of my pieces. I use these classical drawing techniques and materials so I can differentiate myself from the digital content we constantly see on the internet or in post-internet art.
“I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to live in a world that existed beyond three dimensions and one dimension of time” – Joyce Lee
Your compositions place so many would-be discordant elements side by side. How do these different elements interact and what happens to them when they’re placed side by side?
Joyce Lee: I consider myself to be a very spiritual person. When I was younger, I lived a more religious than spiritual life. I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to live in a world that existed beyond three dimensions and one dimension of time, so the concept of ‘parallel realities’ appeals to me and is expressed in the content of my art. Throughout my work, the viewer can observe combinations of disparate times and spaces or the presence of unusual objects in my work, which at first glance look strange and create an alienating feeling. This sensation of being challenged in the way we normally see and experience the world is something I love, both in art and literature.
This book consists of work from your archive. Over what period were the images made? And what new aspects of the work revealed themselves once you were looking at them together in a book?
Joyce Lee: Most of them were created between 2019 and 2022. When I see the selection of artworks for my debut book published by Baron, I realise how my style is constantly evolving. Before 2019, I really enjoyed exploring themes around horror and the gothic.
Are there any significant recurring figures of symbols and could you tell us about them?
Joyce Lee: Many of the objects that look like body parts, such as breast-like fruits and genital-like fishes are an exploration of gender. I get a lot of inspiration from objects and forms that resemble the human body… such as spherical or cylindrical objects which bring to mind the curves of a woman’s body or the shape of a man’s genitals.
Please could you talk us through some of the richly provocative symbolism?
Joyce Lee: The ‘nun’ and ‘prayer’ series is interesting, as it represents religious conservatism. I wanted to subvert ideas about how religion can be polarising in visual culture.
How does the work speak of modern life?
Joyce Lee: I’ve always wanted my work to offer people an escape from reality; for them to get excited, and even blush. My collectors and fans have sent me a lot of messages expressing this. I want the viewer to be taken to a place of the subconscious.
“I want the viewer to be taken to a place of the subconscious” – Joyce Lee
What does the work say about censorship and sexuality?
Joyce Lee: Social networks like Instagram allow nudity in artworks like paintings and sculptures but, at the same time, I see many artists’ works are removed by the platform. Such censorship is concerning as it challenges freedom of expression and speech. Sometimes I see very violent photos on social media. I react to these by simply choosing not to see similar content. All of us have the ability to choose what we want to see and hear, which is fundamental to freedom of expression and speech, therefore I don’t believe Instagram should censor work.
What kind of moments and experiences feed into your work?
Joyce Lee: I find inspiration from everything around me including natural objects and other artists’ works. Discovering interesting sources is fundamental to my creative process. I’m very interested in how such prefabricated images and experiences influence myself and also society. I am also interested in appropriation and often recreate paintings so they have a new meaning.
Do you have any creative rituals or routines you could tell us about?
Joyce Lee: I see things and think about how I might transform them, finding ways I can sexualise or anthropomorphize ordinary objects. I do a lot of research and planning such as calculating angles, making compositions and thinking about suitable colours that are aligned with the work’s concept.
Can you describe the environment in which you work? What sort of objects, items, or images do you have around you in your studio when you’re working?
Joyce Lee: I am working at home at present, I closed my studio and moved my whole workspace to my home in 2020 because I thought my cats and dogs were too old and that I should spend more time with them. Fortunately, all my four cats and two dogs are still with me and I get a lot of energy from them. I also have a very big television screen right across from my work desk, I just can’t work in silence!
Culturally, what excites you most at the moment?
Joyce Lee: I love horror! The movie Nope directed by Jordan Peele and Pearl directed by Ti West are great examples.
Joyce Lee by Joyce Lee is available for pre-order from Baron now