OBSESSIONS / Bargain bohemian: Lennie Lee creates portraits out of rubbish and sells them for a song. Robin Dutt meets the new mad boy of art
Thursday 01 September 1994
Lee, 36, has been creating art havoc for more than 10 years in the form of exhibitions, recitals, installations, poetry readings and performances. At one 'reading', the poem, which was a 15-second babyspeak lament ending in the smashing of a beer glass, won tentative applause. A few left. At another performance called 'My Sad Story', Lee systematically lit and then blew out candles - which burnt him - and shattered old windows with a velvet- covered brick. He almost needed stitches for the resulting wound to his neck.
But Lee is not mad - more tactically insane. He realises what many artists are too frightened to admit - that artists should have fun. Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Cocteau and Warhol would, one suspects, have understood his stance. The artist, according to Lee, is the last bastion of all that is possible - making dreams come true on canvases or plinths.
But his methods are unconventional. He scours the streets looking for urban detritus to use in his 'Rubbish Portraits' which are thickly outlined drawings of friends in resin, filled with tat and tinsel. Like a magpie, Lee rushes after anything shiny, seizing on sweet wrappers and buttons as if they were rare jewels.
Trawling Bond Street after closing time he finds a Tiffany box here, a Chanel bag there. They all end up in the art soup. And art is very much like cooking - which he does adequately well for cohorts of hungry artist collaborators, relying on that artist's staple, couscous. He saves popcorn, dried anchovies and cigarette butts for his framed sculpture in the shape of teardrops, lips, hearts and icecream cones.
His approach to art galleries is similarly unconventional. Not for him the rarified environs of St James's. Instead he has converted part of his four- storey Dalston pile, already brimming with a bizarre selection of art, into a gallery called, 'Rich and Famous'.
'We're attracting loads of people to the house,' he enthuses, 'and we're selling too. I've made 200 or so paintings so far and sold to people on the dole, those in low-paid jobs and people off the street. Young people also show with us and my selection is arbitrary. Ideally, I'd like to open a gallery in Cork Street selling works at pounds 9.99 each.'
Dalston is not Cork Street but he's got the price right. Influenced by the supermarket age, Lee is creating a conveyor-belt line of what he is calling 'Factory Paintings' and is already turning out 2 ft 6 in by 2 ft gems for the price of a tenner - with a penny change.
'They're beautiful - truly democratic art and at a price almost everyone can afford. People have responded well to the work. Some take me five minutes, some three hours. My only concern is to cover the cost of the paint and board.'
This 'diffusion line' of real paintings, much cheaper than any print of art poster, is supplemented by Lee's other work which can sell for several hundred pounds per piece internationally, but sadly not that often. He now spends half the year in Berlin bringing a peculiarly British eccentricity to the city. When the Wall came down, he created a freedom face from the rubble.
People are taking Lee seriously. He has shown at the Barbican Centre, The Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, several galleries in London, Milan and Berlin and at an impromptu art show in the home of celebrated artist A R Penck.
'I'm probably mad,' he asserts with a knowing smile, 'but at least I haven't learnt not to put my hand in the fire yet. I'm beautiful and perfectly formed in every way for my task, which is the running of a production-line.'
'Rich and Famous', 91 Sandringham Rd, Dalston, London E8 (information: 071-609 7772). Open Fri, Sat 11am-5pm or by appointment
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