Daniel Lee

Also online from this issue: Peter Neuman
There was a time when the streets of Lower Manhattan were crawling with monsters: street people, barflies, druggies, and the homeless dominated neighborhoods like SoHo and Alphabet City. These areas have long since been gentrified, and you are more likely to run into a gang of yuppies coming back from dinner at a trendy bistro than to be running from a pack of angry punks. The creatures are still there, of course; they&Mac226;ve just been pushed further underground, away from the glare of the spic and span. Daniel Lee remembers the old days well. When he came to New York in the early 1970s, he lived on a block where the homeless found solace in his doorway and muggings were a nightly occurrence. “You wouldn’t want to leave a car on the street. The next day, you’d find the tires gone or worse.” But Lee has found beauty and inspiration in the underbelly of the city and the beasts that occupy its dark corners.
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. To his dismay, he discovered that the skills he developed in school and overseas did not translate into meaningful career opportunities. “When I moved to New York after graduate school, I couldn’t get a job in photography, and forget about the movies,” remembers Lee. “I did everything from waitering to being a busboy before I got a job in an ad agency.”

Lee honed his technical skills in layout and typesetting in the advertising world and steadily worked his way up to the position of art director. But he longed to use his artistic talent in a more creative way. Lee found himself hanging around the studio whenever a project called for a photographer. He was intrigued by the use of lighting and the techniques employed to get the perfect shot. Lee had some experience in graduate school with photography and was determined to realize his dream of working as a full-time artist. Boldly, Lee quit the agency and started to experiment with the camera to satisfy his creative drive.

To see Lee’s early work is to understand the profound effect the computer has had in shaping his career. Initially, Lee’s images were marked by potent realism: colorful still lifes, street scenes in New York, and portraits of marginalized people from trips to China and Spain. Although the work was well received, he felt limited by the constraints of traditional photography. Like many photographers, Lee’s first computer, a Macintosh Quadra 950, provided him with the tools necessary to create the kind of images that had always been in his imagination. “I spent all my money, maybe $10,000. I wanted to start work that was more conceptual, to start something completely from scratch. If you want to make real progress in life, sometimes you have to drop everything and not look back.

The computer gave me a different way of thinking about the art form.” Lee began to alter his images in Adobe Photoshop and found that 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 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. I chose to experiment with these ideas for “Manimals.” The 12 portraits of the series correspond to the 12 animals (including the horse, rabbit, and ox) represented in the Chinese zodiac. According to the artist, a person is believed to exhibit behavioral and personality traits, sometimes even physical characteristics, relative to the animal year during which he or she was born. Lee found models who were born in a specific year and used their human likeness as the basis of each portrait. Each image took weeks to construct, with layer upon layer of manipulation added to the original image using the painting tools in Photoshop.

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 mythology and science for his subsequent collections. “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. He incorporated his fine art into the commercial realm and attracted corporate clients such as Microsoft, editorial assignments from The New York Times and Newsweek, and produced cover art for novels by Tom Wolfe and Will Self.
To create the images, no actual animal photographs are scanned. Additionally, Lee is quick to note that he does not use “morphing” technology that has been popularized in films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or The Matrix. Rather, he studies pictures of the animal he wants to portray and illustrates the face of the hybrid creature with only a cursory regard for pure anatomy. “I don’t want to get totally involved in the biology of the animals. I’d rather be an artist, which means that I don’t have to worry if my stuff is not accurate.” Lee cites his ability to be a photographer, an artist, and a computer guru as the key to successfully rendering one of his images. “It’s hard to do these pieces. It takes many hours to create one image. You have to go over and over it to get it correct. You have to have both the imagination and the technical know-how to make it work.”
Lee also has to find the right human models who have striking features that can be translated into animal characteristics. Skin tone, body size, the shape of the face, and bone structure all contribute to how the figure will eventually be changed. For instance, to create a panther, Lee found an African-American model with wide eyes and strong cheekbones that approximate what the final product might look like. Although there is no definitive formula, the closer a model is to the ideal, the easier it will be to produce a convincing creature.

Below are portraits from the series “108 Windows.” The exhibition consisted of 108 pieces of 20 x 22” inkjet prints: Han-Sun Temple, in Eastern China, was famed for the far-reaching sound of its ancient bells. The bells were traditionally rung 108 times. Each toll of the bell reverberates through 1 of the 108 windows in the Buddhist underworld as a means of expressing its blessing to the entire 108 entities in the circle of reincarnation.

Lee’s most recent series, “Nightlife,” represents his 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 his or her appearance and demeanor at the photo shoot. A reserved model became an antelope, a model sporting a full head of blonde hair became a lion. Lee himself is featured as the 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 what will happen to human beings in the centuries to come. “I want to try to predict the future of us as a 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.”

James A. Cotter is a writer based out of Montclair, New Jersey.

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