Artist Nikki S. Lee has done what every ex-girlfriend considers, and what some ex-girlfriends do: She has sliced the image of her former beau right out of their photos. Excised from every tourist, post-coital and spur-of-the-moment snapshot taken during the courtship, the old flame is reduced to a knee here, an ear there or simply a hunk of shoulder nudging up against a picture edge. Yet Lee's work is not about a thwarted lover's rage.
Though the setup she's created suggests anger, her pictures are executed without wrath. Photo edges aren't torn, they're neatly sliced. For Lee, the breakup scenario serves as a touchstone, not an end unto itself -- you can see it in the razor-sharp calculation of her compositions and their subsequent alteration. Using the familiar notion of the jilted lover, she casts a cool eye on the richness and complexities of what it means for an individual, man or woman, to be involved with another.
Lee makes her nuanced point by staging these couplings. None captures real-life pairs. Each picture is shot by someone else (whom the artist declines to name). The artist's role is to don various costumes, makeup and personalities as she poses with a variety of "boyfriends," all actors. From this fairly straightforward game of make-believe, she has managed to extract "Parts," her latest and richest body of photo-based work, on view now at Numark Gallery. It's a collection that suggests a remarkably nuanced perspective for an artist still in her early thirties.
In past photographic works, Lee proved her talents for acting and mimicry. Her "Projects" series found the Korean-born artist embedding herself in various cultural groups -- several examples are on view in Numark's project space -- by seamlessly copying clothing and postures. She explored African American teenagers, tourists, yuppies and skateboarders, among others. Her instinct was to investigate the effects of social groups on their members. The resulting pictures asked complicated questions about group behavior and identity.
Here again, in "Parts," Lee proves her talents for spot-on replication. You'll recognize the banal scenarios she sets up as versions of scenes from your own photo album. The snap taken on a London street. That funny Sunday afternoon at the pool. The hiking trip out west. Though Lee's compositions are a bit more studied than the typical person's pictures and are blown up to dwarf conventional 4-by-6s, they do a fine job of evoking the everyday. And each bears a thick white border of the kind Ritz Camera uses around your finished prints. What's missing is the fourth border marking the territory the ex-boyfriends once occupied.
With the fellas out of the picture, what remains is Lee herself. Each frame finds her in a different guise and state of mind -- the prim tourist with a cold stare, the timid girl in the pink top, the ardent girlfriend staring starry-eyed at her beau. Lee assumes a baker's dozen personalities, one for each print in the show, yet she remains recognizable as herself.
In past projects, Lee's mimicry proved so flawless that you could hardly discern her from her subjects. In "Parts," she's less interested in being a chameleon. As one woman playing a variety of types, she's able to tell a more complex story about what it means to be in a relationship. Alongside our partners, haven't we felt at turns timid, confident and joyous? Haven't we been stone cold and sweet as honey, possibly in the same hour? We recognize aspects of our own complex selves in Lee's various moods and outfits.
Here the artist digs into the richness of partnered life. How a particular lover draws out certain qualities, discourages others. How, from one day or moment to the next, we become a variety of people. Good partners bring out our strengths just as unsuitable ones draw out our weaknesses. The "Parts" Lee explores are bits of ourselves that our partners love, hate, tolerate or cherish. They are the parts we ourselves are always just beginning to know.
What's striking about Lee's achievement is the unabashedly superficial means she's used to express such profound ideas. By making myriad surface changes, she expresses something much deeper about who we are. At the same time, she's questioning photography's capacity for documenting truth. Just as we too often judge appearances as reality, something inside us wants to trust photographic reproduction as fact. Such willingness to take photographs as truth-telling documents, in an age of Photoshop and, in Lee's case, willful setups, must be cast in doubt.
Viewers reading these photos as face-value breakup images would miss their real value.
There's a particular alchemy between a viewer and an artwork that is different every time, just as it is between lovers. Owing to every person's unique perspective, that chemistry can never be repeated. But you can recognize an honest work of art -- or person, for that matter -- when you come across it. Real honesty makes enough room for meaning and truth. Lee's work is surely testament to that.
Nikki S. Lee, "Parts & Projects," at Numark Gallery, 625-27 E St. NW, Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-628-3810, to July 24.