Unapologetically emotional despite her minimalist aesthetic and conceptual methodology, Michelle Jane Lee constructed an alphabet by assigning a color to each letter, authoring over 100 works – one of which is 30 feet long – that she calls Love Notes. Opening tonight at Gallery 3209 in Culver City, Love Notes is Lee’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. She will be waiting by the gallery door all evening hoping to see the person for whom she penned so many works of love.
How did you choose to assign colors to letters? Did you choose at random or did you follow a system?
It’s a little bit of a mix of both – I came up with an arbitrary system in my head. There was a system that I used for vowels and a different system for vowels but overall it is a rather arbitrary method.
Could you give me an example for the use of that system – for example, how did you choose a color for the letter “A”?
I actually don’t give away the code or too much about it. It’s something I made up; then I had to go by it.
Is it difficult to commit to a system that you know that you invented?
Surprisingly not. I never even questioned it. It just worked, and it became fact – I see it as an alphabet. I know intellectually that I made it up but it seems like something that’s existed forever.
Has it changed the way you think about language or text – when you look at written word do you see colors?
I do actually – a couple years into it I started seeing colors when people would speak. The colors would run through my head. I’ve even written grocery lists in colors just for fun. I can’t look at a color and not think “That’s that letter”.
Has it affected the way you use color in other work?
I’ve never used color in my work before so now when I do use color I see it as an extension of text… All of my colors say something.
This entire series is inspired by a person you met-
We met three years ago. I’ve only had five encounters with in those three years.
Are you in touch?
I wrote a 30-foot letter that took me a year and a half. After that was done, I contacted this person I hadn’t seen in over a year and told them I wrote them a 30-foot letter in an alphabet that I made for them… it’s a really odd thing to tell someone, but I did.
Are they coming to the show?
They said so. I tell my friends it’s gonna be a performance cause I’ll just be standing at the door. Whether they come or not, I’m gonna be a mess so it should be really fun for everybody. It’ll be great.
How did they react when you told them you’d written this long letter?
They were shocked- thought it was beautiful and reacted well, didn’t seem to think I was a creep. They said it was “nice.” Somehow when I made all this work, I thought that it would lead to us being together. It’s crazy. It’s a bummer but I don’t think anyone really falls in love with someone over a 30-foot letter. They probably get a restraining order usually…
In the history of restraining orders, I doubt there are any 30-foot letters…
Could you describe that work?
It’s 30-feet long by 42 inches wide and it took me a year and a half. I really didn’t start out thinking I was gonna write a letter that long. I bought a scroll that long, and I thought I would just get everything out but then I realized that even 30-feet is not enough…
How much time in total have you spent on this series?
The entire thing started three years ago. Passive Aggressive Love Notes – a series of several small pieces – came first then Exit Strategy – a series of larger pieces I thought would be the last. Then the big letter came…
That’s quite a time commitment. That takes some real motivation and dedication – Can you speak to that? What state of mind are you in when you execute these works?
I’ve always been really ADD- I can never finish a piece, and I jump around different series. I’m really shocked every day that I have done this for the past three years. I can’t believe that I have done all this. One thing about me – obviously, love is a huge motivation for me. I always make work about love. It has a lot of stigma to it, and I’ve made clichéd work before. But it’s always guided me. Honestly the only thing that’s kept me making these – in my delusional mind I have believed every day when I work on these that every single piece could possibly get this person to fall in love with me. After that, I can just continue my practice and think about it intellectually. At the core of it, it’s me being this really romantic person that I’ve always been. I believe in my heart still that one day this person will marry me. It’s so horrible but that’s exactly what it is! I like the pieces aesthetically and conceptually, which is great because I’ve never felt that way about my work. But it’s as honest as it is because the core of it is this heart. That’s what I am. It’s ruining my life but everyone seems to be really excited about it. They’re like “Oh that’s so beautiful! Everyone should make work about love!” And I’m like “Great, you go write a 30-foot-long letter to someone who tells you ‘it’s nice’.” I guess that’s what I’m here to do…
How have the works evolved throughout this series?
I’m just going to be showing the first, smallest pieces. Then the 30-foot-long letter and the newest pieces. On those I write the text, paint over it as usual, then scratch into the paint. That happened after I told her. That progression came out of trying to figure out a way to cover it up – to pretend it never happened or that I’m getting over it – but the scratches prove that I’m not over it. I’m not completely happy or comfortable with these love letters. I don’t wanna be this open but I want to keep part of it alive.
I think it’s pretty inspiring – People can retreat into their ideas, get so conceptual that they’re risking nothing. Vulnerability is a gift.
I’ve always had a minimalist aesthetic, but one of my favorite artists is Agnes Martin. She is so human. Her drawings are bare clean lines that represent so much. I’ve always liked expressing in lines but I want it to be emotional. My visual language is emotive- It’s jam-packed with emotion.