ArtsATL > Art+Design > A conversation with Barry Lee about disability, sexuality and tokenism

A conversation with Barry Lee about disability, sexuality and tokenism

Barry Lee: Shame, Self-Portrait (2017).

How Nice, a solo exhibition by Atlanta artist and Murmur Quarter program resident Barry Lee, will open on Saturday night, July 29 at Murmur Gallery on Broad Street. The opening of this exhibition marks a turning-point for Lee, who is well known for his playful and colorful depictions of happy creatures. Instead, Lee will present a body of work that includes photography, video, sound and a one-night-only installation reflecting on his own life experiences. Though the images are still bright and colorful, thematically, these works bear a heavier load, exploring Lee’s commentary on disability, sexuality, sympathy and tokenism. ArtsATL was invited to discuss these themes and new directions with him in advance of the opening. This is an excerpt of that conversation.

Barry Lee: How Nice (2017). Neon.

ArtsATL: What spurred this shift?

Barry Lee: I felt confident to shift in my work after a 2015 show with Black Cat Tips, YoYo Ferro and Catlanta [at Octane]. This supportive community of friends gave me an arena to begin an understanding with my numerous identities. Combined with a series of public experiences involving my appearance, I refined what I really wanted to say through my art.

People always ask me questions about my physical appearance. One really struck me in a post-college retail gig as a cashier, a customer said, “You should really go to the eye doctor because your eyes are so crooked.” I was caught off-guard and couldn’t say anything because my boss knew the guy. Grinning and bearing it, I brushed it off and he left. He returned later and inquired, “Did you go to the eye doctor yet?” I responded angrily, got really upset. Growing up with kids innocently asking about how I looked didn’t prepare me for blatant ignorance adults could have towards disabled people.

I quit the retail job shortly after, got my first mural gig and from there things snowballed. I’ve been fortunate to be successful and survive by freelancing. As my art career took off,  more intrusive questions came, unpermitted touching of my hearing aid, and other experiences set me off. Someone in the middle of Buckhead traffic stopped me to ask about the way I looked. Ultimately, I felt an interesting split between people who probably knew my art but didn’t know who I was, and my core group of friends who did know me. These clashing polars opposite also pushed me into doing new work.

For the first time ever, I began pushing back when rudely asked about my appearance, because I don’t owe anyone an explanation for existing. Sharing bad experiences on social media renders many “I can’t believe that!” statements — this is part of a larger problem. Sympathetically saying you “can’t believe” something offensive happened disassociates yourself from thinking you might have said a similar statement/belief in the past.

ArtsATL: Was art your immediate vehicle for this message?

Lee: Not originally! I considered becoming a social worker to help others with disabilities. After the Octane show, I was in a predicament. Here I am making really fun work that the public loves, while also coming to grips with my disability and the way people reacted to me. I didn’t want to quit making work altogether, but there’s something more to an artist than just making people happy. I was tired of the same narratives. Keith Haring really inspired me in this time. He used his art in activism, but was also a commercial success. Blending yourself in two areas of art is incredibly hard and I did not let that stop me.

ArtsATL: Did you feel you were growing out of your style you established?

Lee: Just the subject matter.

ArtsATL: The happy fantasy you put out needed to shift to a reality of yourself and not an invention of your pure creativity.

Lee: Exactly! Although, fantasy was a tool for me to escape as a child. When I was going through surgeries and putting up with bullies, I would draw. Oftentimes my fantasy and reality are very distorted. Creating a body of work that was one step in fantasy and one step in reality came naturally.

ArtsATL: Why venture into photography?

Lee: I really got into Federico Fellini movies, and when I was 13 I discovered 8 ½. That became my favorite film. It depicts a divide of fantasy and reality. With flashbacks all over, you don’t really get which shot is fantasy and which is real. Art films and pictures by Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch and John Waters that tested viewers with strange imagery grabbed me. After revisiting them for fun, I thought it would be a great homage to their works by using a picture-based medium for How Nice. It also connects the viewer directly to me. No cosmic fantasy, just me.

ArtsATL: Your body as a majority of the subject matter is beautiful and vulnerable. Any inspiration from the art world that encouraged the correlation of fantasy/reality and making your body public in this work?

Barry Lee: Another Day, Self-Portrait (2017).

Lee: I’m not the first person to present myself this way, but I consciously decided NOT to research disabled artists so I could form my own narrative. What’s inspired me the most are bloggers. In the last decade, we’ve seen writers talk about their disability openly. Sometimes it’s tweets, other times it’s long format, and even TV shows. I wanted that and wasn’t seeing it executed visually! It’s important to visualize those feelings so that it’s all the more real.

A recent Master of None episode dedicates 10 minutes to a deaf girl talking to her boyfriend about sex! That was a first for me as a disabled person to witness on television. No ABC Family vibe, just real life stuff! Ryan O’Connell is a gay writer with Cerebral Palsy who writes many articles about his sex life. He is blunt as can be. This challenges our narrative, and I want to be known that I was a part of challenging it.

It’s good to create for others in the future. By carving out representation, I hope someone can look on this How Nice and not feel alone in their disability. It’s scary but important.

ArtsATL: A good kind of scary?

Lee: Absolutely. Moving to Atlanta meant a new life for me. Art took off, but I didn’t want to create work solely about disability then. I was afraid clients would assume I wouldn’t be able to do something. Once I achieved what I set out to do, in terms of murals, shows and classical practices, it was time to explore. People assumed I was a happy-go-lucky person constantly because of what I painted; light palettes, dogs, etc. I want to show the other side of me and not be pigeon-holed. Being fortunate enough to have an audience to educate with new art while maintaining fun work is relieving.

ArtsATL: Every artist wants to make what they want, but it is discouraging that we have to be cautious.

Lee: It’s been a very calculated move on my part.

ArtsATL: What are your expectations of the response to How Nice?

Lee: Cautiously optimistic. Obviously nervous. Some people won’t understand the route of what I’m trying to do. That’s okay. You shouldn’t follow artists for their style, but because of their stories and what they bring to the world. We as artists have every right to do new things and shouldn’t be chained to people who expect us to do the same thing all the time. Not everyone will be receptive, and that is alright because they didn’t really wanna follow me for me anyway!

There are relationships between my illustration work and this new body of art. The humor, color, exaggeration, sarcasm and absurdity are projected through my own soul. I take it everywhere and into my painted work; the exaggerated bodies and funny little drawings correlate to something else, but just in a different manner.

ArtsATL: Throughout the show, you intentionally maintain eye contact with the viewer. What sentiment(s) are you relaying to them?

Lee: Each piece asks “Do you see this?” “Really?! You don’t see this?” I’m also relaying that I create my own worlds, too. The world that I currently live in is very small, with only 100 recorded cases of Nager Syndrome in the world. Many wonder if I was in a car accident, mentally challenged, etc. because this syndrome is so rare.

ArtsATL: Have you ever explored the intersectionality of the identities you align with through your artwork before?

Lee: I explored my past in a 2014 show Home is Where You Drown. I made a small body of illustrations that depicted my life growing up in the Outer Banks. Each painting was accompanied by a short story of instances with people as a child. I’m so thankful for Tony and Diane Riffel of Octane for allowing me to be vulnerable and open in that public space. However that work doesn’t describe what I’m feeling now, or how I’ve grown.

In terms of creating a show in regards to my feelings now or the last 10 years, no.

Home is Where You Drown was overshadowed because I started doing this fun illustration work and it blew up. Looking back, How Nice and every piece I’ve made since then root back to that show. I have a different audience now, so I’m reintroducing myself along the lines of “I don’t feel as sorry for myself as much as you feel sorry for me!”

ArtsATL: When did you first discover your artwork could be a response to people and society dictating sympathy?

Lee: I was 16 when I started understanding an identity with my syndrome. Incredibly frustrated, I asked, “Why do I even need this?” “Does it matter?” This was my first “no” to everyone who had been telling me I needed certain things to be normal. I was born into a life of surgeries, with nine before the age of one. But when you’re a teenager and going to the doctor all the time, there’s an inherent feeling to always change yourself. I cut off all suggested surgeries after age 21. At 23 I became surer of myself in the way I looked and finally focused on being.

ArtsATL: Was that a form of “coming out” for you?

Lee: Yes! I came out as bi at 23, but I also came out as disabled to myself and the public. There are layers here. For example, in my dating life I have to come out as three identities: bi, disabled and deaf. It’s also a little strange that I have to come out as disabled more than as bisexual. Ultimately I’m done saying I’m sorry, or feeling that I have to apologize for being who I am.

ArtsATL: Is How Nice a coming out again in the art world?

Lee: Yes. My narrative will not be erased.

ArtsATL: Do you want to be known for more than challenging the narrative of disabled people?

Lee: I want to be known as a voice in activism. I want to create work that not only makes people happy (I will always paint my dogs in space) but also represents the other side of me. Part of the show is activism in relation to disability and art. The accessibility of this work is also a dream. I don’t want to be known as a disabled artist or queer artist. I just want to be known as Barry Lee, who just so happened to have all these identities at once.

How Nice opens Saturday, July 29 at 7 p.m. at Murmur Gallery on Broad Street. Opening night attendance is highly encouraged for a special, one-night-only installation.

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