Helen Lee: Becloud

Urban Glass

September 16th - November 7th, 2015

OMG, Neon, 20" x 64", 2015

OMG, Neon, 20" x 64", 2015

Helen Lee has described the content of the works in Becloud as bearing “sentiment on the cusp of visibility.” The act of taking in every detail is a challenge, but it’s not impossible: visitors are invited to linger and scrutinize these objects more intently than they might ordinarily do in a gallery setting. The word “becloud” means to “cause to become obscure or muddled.” Lee’s choice of this word asks us to consider the multiple ways in which her works transmit information through different kinds of semi-permeable barriers: heritage and love through culture and family, language and meaning through the written word, and the aesthetic and ineffable through glass and light.

The experience of peering through glass is often uncanny. We’re aware of its presence, but glass itself is hard to see; whatever lies beyond it is visible, but appears different. Glass is so common in the built environment of our daily lives that we can forget how integral it is, and how many instances of ordinary interaction are made richer, even startling, because of its presence. Our faces are reflected in the surfaces of our smartphones when we least expect it, or on the sides of shiny new skyscrapers as we walk past. Windows make us aware of the light and weather of the outside world, and glass feels cool and solid in our hands as we handle everyday kitchen equipment.

Glass is so useful, in fact, that we take it for granted. We shouldn’t. For centuries, it was the surface through which holy information was illuminated: even today, the glass lanterns that light the insides of mosques adorned with verses from the Qur’an make sacred texts shine brightly, and stained glass windows inside churches share the images and stories of the Bible with congregants. Glass captures light, and in so doing, makes momentarily solid something that can’t be held or touched. It makes perfect sense that the artists, architects, designers, and craftsman of the medieval world used glass wherever possible to make tangible something that defies definition and full comprehension. In these contexts, glass stands in for that which we recognize, but cannot entirely understand.

Growing up the daughter of Chinese parents, Helen Lee found herself in the classic “third place” known so well to first-generation immigrant-Americans, better acquainted with another culture than most of her compatriots in the US, but not totally at home in the culture of her parents, either. Her language skills were frozen in time, so that even as an adult, she struggles to explain complex ideas using the vocabulary of a much younger person. Her parents have both died, which means that her direct experience of the cultural, familial, and linguistic link to Taiwan is reliant on her memories. The works in this exhibition, taken together, are the physical manifestations of Lee’s attempt to make tangible the dual experiences that have shaped her world: dead and living, Chinese and American, Mandarin and English. Her mastery of glass as a studio material dovetails with this aesthetic longing perfectly.

Many of the works in Becloud playfully engage with text and type. The neon work OMG depicts the Mandarin characters that read wo de tian, which translates literally as “my day”—the expression contemporary Chinese speakers use in situations where an American would say (or type) the acronym “OMG.” Rendered here in pink neon, the text resembles retail signage. In this installation, these electrified words serve as a welcoming beacon, inviting viewers to step into a space where something intriguing is on view, while not making it initially clear what that something might be.

As Lee herself notes, identity is not something that can be translated. The work that hangs suspended from the ceiling, Pyrocumulus, or “fire cloud” is associated with volcanic activity, and forms as the result of intense heat from the surface of the earth. Here, a cloud made from elements of English—which can be read, but not understood—holds light the way a natural pyrocumulus holds moisture in the sky. Lee’s Chinese name, 彤 (“Tóng”) , is the term for the red or pink clouds one sees before a snowfall. She notes that it’s the same phenomenon noted in the expression “red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailor’s warning,” but as rendered in Chinese, a single character describes this phenomenon. Instead of direct translation, we see the basic building blocks of English words suspended like drops of water in the air. No person currently alive addresses Lee by this name, making it a suspended, silent aspect of her identity.

Two of the works capture aspects of Lee’s grandmother, Wen-Chen C. Liu, who raised her. Lee describes her as a classic Chinese grandma, who was “more or less uneducated and raised to be a homemaker.” Very sweetly, Lee says that if there there is a key to her soul, Wen-Chen C. Liu holds the original copy. My Grandmother Held a Pencil Like a Brush is inspired by her memory of her grandmother writing her name in the only English letters she knew on Social Security paperwork while holding a standard No. 2 pencil as though it were a calligraphy brush: straight up and down, rather than at an angle. Complementing this work is My Grandmother Watched Wheel of Fortune Every Day For the Last 20 Years of Her Life Not Knowing a Lick of English, one of the pieces that includes an example of vernacular glass as it appears in a consumer product. An episode of “Wheel of Fortune” plays silently on an older model television set, recalling the pre-internet era of home entertainment that formed the context for Wen-Chen C. Liu’s experience as an immigrant in an incomprehensible new world. The experience of viewing this familiar staple of American TV is designed to echo the silence that Wen-Chen C. Liu felt navigating American life without the tool of English to guide her.

The three works that directly address the gray area of overlap, translation, and attempts at comprehension between Mandarin and English are Chinese ArabicConvergent Phonetics and Like ClockworkChinese Arabic refers to a informally documented phenomenon observed in the handwriting of Chinese speakers as they form Arabic numerals: they look different from those produced by Western language speakers, and seem to have a distinct style all their own. The numbers are often hard for Western readers to discern, as though unintentionally “translated,” despite being represented by the same character in every language. Convergent Phonetics pits the “Bopomofo” method of phonetic notation that Lee learned as a child to understand Chinese against the ABCs she learned in elementary school. Lee attempts to map each of these phonetic systems with the other, revealing both gaps and areas of overlap in the sounds of these two languages. Viewers familiar with both languages will find themselves confronted with conflicting orthographic rules, and mouthfuls of sounds that both define and defy the proper ordering of each language. Like Clockwork is comprised of pieces of glass cane in which the cross section of each cane is based on the letters of the Roman alphabet. When twisted, the individual characters are hard to read, but generate a new pattern, in a sense not unlike the helical structures of DNA referenced in the composed text.

The works Marjorie and Charles and Kowtow both reference physical rituals, both formal and informal, that bridge the gap between two cultures and two languages. Marjorie and Charles is inspired by the story of how Lee’s mother got her English name: a college English instructor couldn’t keep the students’ Chinese names straight, so the students were instructed to sit in the same seat every day, and each seat had a name “assigned” to it. Mrs. Lee sat in the “Marjorie” seat, and this became her English name, permanently. The kowtow is a bow in which one touches one’s forehead to the ground in a gesture of respect, traditionally something that Chinese people will do three times to honor deceased relatives and ancestors. Here, a specific kind of glass represents the emotional quality of a physical experience that feels natural in a Chinese context and oddly formal in an American one.

Lee created Pillow Book on reflection of the period of time that followed her mother’s death, when her waking life was foggy with grief. Inspired in part by the solid ceramic funerary pillows that were used in China at least as early as the Northern Song Dynasty in the 10th century, Pillow Book takes its title from the famous diary of Sei Shōnagon, a court lady who lived in late 10th and early 11th century Japan. Pillow books generally were collections of notebooks gathered together to demonstrate a period of time in someone’s life. In the years following her mother’s death, Lee slept to excess—a common reaction to grief and mourning, and she was distracted and forgetful while awake. Curiously, during this time period, numerous friends made an effort to get in touch with her because they had dreamed about her. The recollections of these dreams, Helen’s appearance in others’ subconscious, are recorded in the layers of glass that comprise Pillow Book.

The one work that seems to tie each of the others together, conceptually and temporally, is Announcement. A multimedia work that incorporates a vintage heliograph from 1943, Announcement telegraphs the news of Lee’s daughter’s birth in early 2015 using Morse code in the form of flashing light: "Cicada Wen-Zhong Clark, Born January 21, 2015, 4:50 p.m., 7 lbs. 15 oz., 21" long. Mother and baby are well." With Lee’s parents and grandparents deceased, the heliograph, an old-fashioned method for using glass and sunlight to communicate across long distances, is a poetic way to send this message in a way that we can see up close in the gallery, and further afield, to destinations unknown to us.

About the Artist: Helen Lee uses glass to think about language. She holds an MFA in Glass from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BSAD in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lee has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, California College of Art, Toyama City Institute of Glass Art, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio, and the MIT Glass Lab. Her recent honors include the inaugural Irwin Borowsky Prize in Glass Art (2013) and the Edna Wiechers Arts in Wisconsin Award (2014). Lee has been a freelance graphic designer for Chronicle Books and Celery Design Collaborative, and an Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, and has exhibited her work across the country. She is currently an Assistant Professor and Head of Glass in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

About the Curator: Sarah Archer is a writer and independent curator based in Philadelphia. As the Senior Curator at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, she organized numerous exhibitions including a site-specific installation by Beijing-based artists Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen. Prior to moving to Philadelphia, she was the Director of Greenwich House Pottery, and a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Arts and Design. She has recently contributed catalog essays for exhibitions at the Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum, and to anthologies including Shows and Tales (Art Jewelry Forum) and The Ceramic Reader (Bloomsbury). Her articles and reviews have appeared in Hyperallergic, the Journal of Modern Craft, Ceramics: Art and Perception, Hand/Eye, Modern Magazine, Studio Potter, The Huffington Post, Slate, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post. She recently guest-curated “Bright Future: New Designs in Glass” at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery. She has taught at the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University, and the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. She holds a BA from Swarthmore College, and an MA from the Bard Graduate Center.

Support for this research was provided by the University of Wisconsin - Madison WCER Faculty Research Award and the University of Wisconsin - Madison Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

Additional support for this exhibition has been generously provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Robert Lehman Foundation.