Lee's exploration of the human form and its relation to our primitive past draws inspiration equally from Darwin's theory of evolution, the Chinese zodiac, the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, and the pulsing rhythm of New York after hours. But perhaps most important to Lee's work is a fascination with how photographs of ordinary people can be manipulated to create images that are both grotesque and elegant. One would not want to meet up with one of Lee's creations in a dark alley, but in the artist's mind, they are a representation of what we all have lurking inside us, waiting for the opportunity to burst out.
Born in China and educated in Taiwan, Lee spent his formative years painting and drawing. He earned a BFA from the College of Chinese Culture, and found interest and success in filmmaking in Asian markets such as Hong Kong. He came to the United States in 1970 with the expectation of continuing his education (he earned a master's degree at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1972) and finding work in the visual arts.
Lee began to alter his images in Adobe Photoshop and found the freedom of the technology inspired him to approach the creative process in a fresh way. "I could see how easy it was to change color, to superimpose, to strip images. That was really the beginning of something new."The result of his experimentation, a series titled "Manimals," drew from Lee's background as a Chinese immigrant."In China, there are people who still believe
in reincarnation. They have faith that in the next life, or a in a past life, they might have been an animal of some sort." Lee's own belief in Darwin's theory of evolution contributed to his exploration of the connection between animals and humans. "I believe that because we have only been able to distinguish human behavior from animal behavior for about 30,000 years, that deep inside our minds and hearts, we still have certain animal desires. We have a certain wildness. The response to "Manimals" was immediate and unexpected. The bizarre and disquieting images drew rave reviews when displayed at the prominent OK Harris gallery in New York City. Lee finally found himself in the unique position to create personal work on his own terms. Invigorated, Lee continued to draw from Chinese "The Judgement" (featuring characters from folklore and Buddhism, whose role is to judge the dead and to determine their human or animal destiny in the afterlife), "108 Windows" (a collection
of 108 faces representing all the entities in the circle of reincarnation including demons, fairies, and animals) and "Origin" (a speculative study of how humans might have evolved from aquatic creatures to apes and finally to humans) all derive from Lee's challenging and sometimes frightening interpretation of how humans exhibit beastly qualities. The initial buzz Lee received from his "Manimals" collection grew into a siren as more attention and accolades met each new series.
His most recent series,"Nightlife," represents Lee's most sophisticated work to date. In keeping with the theme of revealing the animal within, Lee looked to the vibrant youth culture of the city and became fascinated with the intricate mating rituals that flourish in the bars and clubs of Manhattan."I was meeting young clients, art directors, designers, who wanted to go out and drink and listen to music after meetings. I didn't feel part of the culture, with everyone endlessly drinking and looking to meet single people. I would sit back and watch. I found that the young people were really behaving in a way that brought out their primitive animal form. Some were aggressive, like predators, others were like prey, waiting to be hunted. It was like some wild animal kingdom." Lee began to see specific creatures sitting on bar stools and flirting in the dim corners of smoky clubs. His idea was to transform the late night-crowd into a body of work that exhibited primal attraction.
Volunteers from Lee's neighborhood were more than happy to pose for "Nightlife": aspiring artists and actors along with their roommates, boyfriends, and even a woman's tattoo artist sat for Lee. His intention, to create one enormous 5 by 18-foot image, necessitated that his subjects be photographed more than once to include heads, torsos, and legs, all in different frames. Each model's animal metamorphosis was based on their appearance and demeanor at the photo shoot. A reserved model became an antelope, a model sporting a full head of blond hair became a lion. Lee himself is featured as a proverbial monkey in the middle, peering oddly at the jungle around him."I'm an anxious outsider watching what everyone else is doing." Lee considers "Nightlife" his most ambitious project to date. "This is something I've never done before. It's colorful, it's a contained scene, with a background with full bodies and an indication of where we are in today's life."
For his next project, Lee wants to break from both our evolutionary past and our current state and speculate on beings in the centuries to come. "I want to try to predict the future of us as people. Five hundred years from now anything can happen, with technology moving as fast as it has been. Today, we can clone animals, we can freeze heads, we can use animal organs to save lives. What's going to happen if all these experiments become reality? I want to come up with something I have not experienced yet"