Ness Lee is a Toronto-based artist who keeps a diary for feelings. Her work can be seen in many different forms, ceramics that fit on bedside tables, drawings on sketchbook papers, paintings that hang in galleries, and murals that sprawl over entire restaurants. Each one is an entry about Lee's life, her thoughts on intimacy, and her studies of a character which people often mischaracterize as a hypersexual self-portrait. Lee's characters, which are quickly becoming familiar to Toronto pedestrians and art fans, are tokens of the many feelings she puts into conversation and she assigns each one a different weight. I visited the sweet and pensive artist in her studio to talk about her work and the many speculations it receives.
VICE: Tell me a little bit about your process, how do you get started on your work?
Ness Lee: Usually a lot of my stuff is pretty autobiographical. A lot of it is just literally pen to paper and kind of just like right then and there. I plan compositions and to me it's like a diary entry and I kind of just draw my feelings out. It's very impulsive but my drawings are a little more meticulously planned in terms of the way it looks. When it comes to ceramics, I just do it right then and there. It's a little different depending on what I'm making.
If your pieces are like diary entries, doesn't it feel so vulnerable making these big diary entries for people to see?
It is in a way but not really because I'm the only one who knows what it means. It's really nice that people can connect to my pieces and my work but they kind of take away what they see. I don't really explain exactly what's in them but if you see in my drawings I always write behind them what's in my diary entry.
You do? On the back of each one?
Yeah mostly. For the most part, everything behind it has an explanation.
A little easter egg!
Yes! Just for me.
What's a common response that you usually get that is either accurate or inaccurate about your work?
For the most part, people just assume that it's me naked, which is fine. But it's not really my initial intention. They do kind of end up looking like me because I'm my only reference I have. Usually, people take away a really hypersexualized theme, which has a grain of truth, because it can be based on my own sexuality and the ways I am exploring it and the thoughts I have on being intimate but it's not like blatant porn or anything–which some people think it is! What do you think about people talking about race in your work and having to justify racial images in your pieces. Is it taxing to talk about or is it something that you want to focus on?
I do paintings but in terms of colour palette I don't do so much because I'm very particular about colour but I've been recently asked about skin colours and races being represented, which is something that I think is really important and also something that I've never really explored because I've usually gone through a simple monochromatic theme–just black and white drawings and figures–doing that, I did that recently with Vivek Shraya's album and she wanted me to explore different tones of brown so that was really interesting to do with my figures too because it also kind of changed the way they looked and I liked that a lot.
Is that annoying for you? When people talk about your work like it's "Asian" bodies when it's like, "I'm just drawing bodies."
It is a bit because I don't really see it. I could kind of see how it looks like me so I could see people drawing that conclusion but that part is a little weird. And also when people ask about their genders and ask why they are are all naked and stuff. To me that's kind of besides the point and it's more of just what you take in visually. It's kind of not really the important thing to focus on. It's interesting that others do.
Dialogues about "Asian-Canadian" art can also really lump us together. Do you feel it's important for you to stick to Chinese influences or do other Asian influences affect your work?
For the most part I do get the comment of having a Japanese-inspired aesthetic and that only comes from my love for Shunga art, which is Japanese erotica. If you've ever seen it, it's very beautiful and very, like, vulgar but the simple lines are what I mainly draw inspiration from. That's the most representation I have in my work but I'm not Japanese. [Laughs] That's also to say that I don't focus on that representation of being Asian because again, it's a diary entry for me, so I don't really focus on blatant appearances. It's more of a feeling and the way the bodies interact and look at each other and encompass the piece as a whole in terms of composition.
How much does your work examine growing up, and family, and history in your life?
Nothing too specific just on that front just because they are more of my stylized characters so it's not really a representation of a certain period of my life or me growing up as a child. In terms of the representation of being a Chinese-Canadian, a lot of the emotional parts of my work is kind of based on that: growing up and not really fitting in and kind of the insecurity of who I am and my identity in Canada. I'm Hakka and Hakka in itself is–I don't know a lot of Hakka people. The language for people in my generation is kind of fading away so in terms of that growing up I didn't really have that present in my life so it was very confusing growing up with other kids who did know their culture and had that language down and I didn't. I'd be around these other Chinese kids and I wouldn't know what they're saying but I was part of this group so it was a lot of confusion. From there, some insecurity stemmed and it kind of grew to other things and here I am. Some of your pieces really make me laugh. How much do you relate to caricature and absurdity?
I don't know, it's funny because I feel like most of my pieces are very serious so I do see how they could be amusing or humourous, which I like because, for the most part, me making a piece and thinking about a composition and how it visually represents itself is me concluding this diary entry in a way and getting over it. So visually, it looking kind of humourous is sometimes the way I conclude the piece.
Is there a lot of humour in Shunga?
I would say so. If you've ever seen it, I'm not sure that the intention is there to be humourous but looking at it, you would see like two people having sex but then the dick is like so big. It's like a tree trunk and it's ridiculous. But it's beautiful, too! It's everything I like in art.
What is it that you attribute size to, whether in the size of your works or the characters? Does it represent anything in particular?
For the most part, size in terms of the bodies and the masses that they are–the way they are and the size that they are–kind of just encompasses the feeling. I know it sounds cheesy but to me, the bigger the figure, the bigger the feeling. And I've always used these characters as a conversation piece. Sometimes the more people there are, the more thoughts and conversations are happening with myself on paper. That's what I take from size, I hate to put it that way but that's kind of generally what happens or ends up happening.
Why is it uncomfortable for you to put it that way?
I don't like to put my pieces into a formula in such a way of interpretation, it's more what you take from it visually. I don't want someone to be like, "Oh, there's a big figure so…" [Laughs]
[Laughs] She's super sad!
So much feelings in that one! Follow Celeste Yim on Twitter.