KMAC’s newest exhibition fills the third floor of the Main Street museum with a retrospective of artist Thaniel Ion Lee, a Louisvillian who has spent his career eschewing traditional practices and exploring the edges of several different mediums.
Titled “The Ideal Viewer,” the exhibit offers a long view of nearly two decades of the artist’s career.
Lee has been interested in art since he was young, but he says he didn’t start focusing in on his practice until much later.
“I was one of those nerdy kids who just kind of did it and stuck at it,” he tells Insider. “I didn’t really take myself seriously at all until about the year 2000. I did the whole teenage/early 20s thing of just dicking around. I wish I could say there was some big intellectual reason, but no.”
Of the many works he has on display at KMAC, one of the best examples of Lee’s tendency to mess with the rules is a painting from a series he worked on that questioned the nature of artistic authorship.
Art and ownership has long been a difficult and frequently ignored subject. Many renowned artists — from the greats of the Renaissance era to Andy Warhol — had extra hands in the creation of their works, whether it was an apprentice, an intern or a devotee. This doesn’t always get brought up in the general discussion of “greatness.”
For that series, which was originally shown in an exhibit called “I Guarantee You Will Be Disappointed,” Lee introduced other artists, random chance and a rule-based painting system to guide his creations.
“I would come up with the rules, and I’d have another artist do the work,” he explains. “I wanted to do a work once removed from myself. I wanted to come up the rules and the formula and not have any other hand in it.”
He called these creations “dice paintings.” Lee would direct another artist to roll a six-sided die to choose one of six pre-written instructions, repeating the process until the work was finished.
Lee’s tendency to avoid the usual way of looking at art finds a literal expression in the current show at KMAC.
While it might not occur to a lot of casual visitors of museums, the way art is hung is often a purposeful choice, either by the artists or the curator. Often, that art is hung in a way to show the art in its best light, and hung toward the eye level of viewers. There are implicit ideas at work about what a typical audience is like.
Lee, along with KMAC curator Joey Yates, threw those ideas and assumptions out the window.
“I had this idea a while ago, a conceptual work where I was going to take all the paintings at a museum and hang them really low and/or really high, where barely anyone could see them,” he says. “This show is kind of constructed out of that. We kicked around a lot of ideas.”
Some of the ideas weren’t feasible, but Yates and Lee made a long list of people for whom they could hang the show.
“It varied from the shortest man alive — 22 inches tall — to the tallest man alive ever, and that’s 8 feet, 11 inches. Every work is hung for someone different,” says Lee.
The playful relationship between Yates and Lee is a reflection of the friendship that brought Lee’s retrospective to KMAC.
“Me and Joey, we’ve been talking about working together on something for years, it feels like,” Lee says. “I guess it was more like good timing. Joey asked me if I wanted to do a show, and we discussed what kind of show it would be. So it ended up being a midcareer retrospective.”
Yates and Lee surveyed Lee’s available works, essentially looking at everything the artist has done that they could lay their hands on.
“The work dates back to 2003, which is really old for me. That’s the oldest thing I would actually show anybody,” says Lee.
Retrospectives generally occur at a point in an artist’s career when the artist, the curator and the audience can look back over a range of years and projects the artist has produced, and by viewing them together, perhaps understand the artist in a new light.
“Thaniel Ion Lee: The Ideal Viewer” continues through May 27. Admission to KMAC is still free every day due to a sizable grant from Delta Dental. The museum is located at 715 W. Main St.