“Who is best positioned to survive?” This is Dionne Lee’s question, which abides throughout her work in photography, video, and collage. Probing the American landscape and outer space, she explores suppressed histories and underlying trauma. Her own hands are among the tools Lee uses to conduct her work, and they frequently appear as if to show the personal nature of her search.
In coming to spend time in the Chihuahuan Desert, Lee imagined her work would focus on the forces of erosion and extraction to show what is hidden, revealed, and taken from the land. Once at Chinati, however, her residency took on an impetus of its own. As she wrote in the handout at her open studio, “When I arrived in Marfa I experienced an immediate disorientation of scale and perception … how far away a mountain range was … one week feeling like three days, traveling exclusively by bike and on foot, and simply: Where … am … I?” To get her bearings, she started first looking for tools then creating them. In the process, she was drawn to the idea of a bad tool and what she could learn through misuse: “What good is a ruler in all this space?” The public library next door to her studio became a favorite place to conduct research and photocopy collage material.
Through the work she shared, three videos and a pair of sculptural “stages” designated by blue tarps, Lee explored how the body relates to deep time embedded in the land. On one tarp sat a bucket of natural indigo dye from whence emerged hefty pieces of knotted rope. The other stage operated almost like an archaeological site with an arrangement of objects—including coins, a camera, a rock with the shape of a hand traced on it, and wooden rulers painted over to turn them into more elemental scales of measure. Rediscovered in one of the videos, these objects animated a geological timescale with a sense of impending doom. In another video, the camera roved above the ground following the ghostly movements of a Y-stick, or divining rod, in the artist’s hands.
Dionne Lee (born 1988 in New York City; lives in Columbus, Ohio) received her MFA from California College of the Arts. She has held artist residencies at Light Work, Syracuse, New York (2021) and Unseen California (2022), which engages the public land of California as an outdoor studio and classroom laboratory. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and has been exhibited at Aperture Foundation (2016), New York; Silver Eye Center for Photography, Pittsburgh (2019); and the New Orleans Museum of Art (2021). She is currently a Post-MFA Fellow at The Ohio State University, living on the unceded territories of the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Delaware, Miami, Peoria, Seneca, Wyandotte, Ojibwe, and Cherokee peoples.