In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how creative freedom enables SoCal artists to make spiritual work as part of their practices.
"Multidisciplinary" has become a ubiquitous art-world buzzword, having crept into nearly all creative disciplines with the proliferation of digital tools. But in artist Michael Dee's case, the work isn't so much multidisciplinary as it is trans-disciplinary. Instead of just using various materials and applications, Dee makes art that actually questions and challenges the necessity of parlance such as "multidisciplinary," "genre," and "raw material" at all.
Over the course of his career, Dee has explored a wide range of techniques, from painting photos and designing flags to melting plastic and brewing ale. He's also made 3D neon and graphite/resin castings in addition to more traditionally acknowledged art forms such as abstract painting, performance art, and video installations. If it had to be defined, Dee's own style would fall somewhere between pop-surrealism and neo-conceptualism, with subtle autobiographical themes embedded throughout.
Originally an aerospace technology student, Michael Dee decided instead to study Art Education and Studio Arts at Kent State University. That's when he became absorbed by Kent's tight-knit punk rock scene and its DIY methodology and aesthetics, manifested not just through music, but also the accompanying art parties, xeroxed zines, and illustrative show flyers. Dee eventually earned his MFA in Sculpture at Kent and now teaches Psychology and Art History at a career college in Los Angeles.
"When I was younger I always knew everything that would happen in advance, but as the years have progressed, I have been a little more experimental with materials and open to the element of chance," he tells The Creators Project.
For years, Dee was crafting glowing plastic star sculptures, but only recently learned how they fit into his larger exploration of light as a life force, as well as his growing fascination with the energy of the desert. "I love to do primary research, whether viewing stars in Joshua Tree or photographing aircraft in Burbank," Dee says. "I have been researching the contradictory concepts of the desert being the realm of the anti-life force, as Burroughs described it, or as a rich life force of electric fields, similar to the quest of other contemporary researchers."
As an artist growing up in Pittsburgh, Dee says Andy Warhol was a big influence. He also found himself influenced by artists such as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Martin Kersels, and Skip Arnold, which helped him decide to move to Southern California. "I viewed LA kind of romantically as the Wild West where anything could happen," he admits. "When I was coming up, LA was a more laid back, freeform, and affordable alternative to NY."
Dee’s found that his early career was defined by "dark and psychological work." Since moving to LA, however, he says, "I have come to embrace color, life, and nature. I believe that things of beauty, creation, and healing can stand as viable alternatives to the harsh industrial areas that I inhabited for ten years after college, being focused only on my art career and financial concerns […] If I can help the flowers, birds, bees, and tortoises through my art or teaching, that is far more rewarding and important than having a purely narcissistic focus."
When it comes to his spirituality, Dee's is fundamentally entwined with nature. "I tend to prefer to be on the trails, near the waterfalls, and under the trees as opposed to the more sanctioned, overly curated meditative experiences," he says. “I’m interested in having new experiences and ongoing exploration, whether it be visiting new environments, hearing new bands, or experimenting with new materials. It is my hope that through engaging in these activities, I can create works that can promote thought about one’s life, visual pleasure, and universal experiences.”