Lee 'Scratch' Perry is one of the all-time (ALL-TIME) greats–the producer and genius who pulled dub out of the dirt and the sky and whose recorded legacy won't ever give up all its secrets. (Just like in Kiss Me Deadly–what's IN Lee's suitcase?) Less-known but still annihilating is Lee's visual art, which is a term that will have to stretch here to include just about every physical object the man spends more than five minutes with. At his fingertips–as his fans well know–things come alive. He receives his first-ever visual art show this weekend at Dem Passwords in West Hollywood. Curator Sebastian Demian speaks about this other manifestation of Lee 'Scratch' Perry.
Why is it that this is Lee's first art show ever? Why is he so much better known as a musician than a visual artist?
I think Mr. Perry is so much better known as a musician because of the sheer amount of music he's made and the legendary status of his productions. It is very clear what he's doing when he makes music, but his art has been something more private. He's been painting since the '70s but all of his work from that time has been destroyed. There isn't too much Lee Perry art from years past that you can point to outside of what exists at his Black Ark studio in Jamaica, his Blue Ark in Switzerland and what's been captured on film and video over the years. He's not really making canvases for anyone and his art has been difficult to preserve. It's an insane blessing we have this collection. His work is in plain sight, though. His microphone and his hat and his boots are amazing artworks in and of themselves–his suitcases and his clam-shell DVD players are all customized. All of his personal effects are customized to the point of being artworks.
I know Lee has a very particular ritual in the studio–he brings his suitcase full of incense, rocks and water. What do you know about his painting process?
His painting process is exactly like his music-making process. He layers his canvases like he laid tracks of audio down on his 4-track. Same with his sculptures. He will lay down a drawing and that could be the bass line, maybe, and then he adds layer after layer like his studio masterworks. Only the instruments are different. I know he's having great fun when he's drawing or writing or doing anything creative. When he's writing on his laptop he really gets into it and I can tell he's excited about it by the noises he makes. He'll write a sentence and then let out a groan. We have a video in the exhibition of him performing a ritual around his 'Magic Spells' painting you can check out.
Where do you see the most powerful overlap between Lee the producer and Lee the painter? Is there some sort of common theme he keeps approaching?
His music and his paintings are one and the same to me. He's exploring all the same themes: religious and sexual themes, money, power. His works are also like a diary. He writes and paints what he's thinking about at that moment. In Mr. Perry's paintings you can see the history of the Jamaican people, the legacy of reggae music and everything he's into right now. He's into horror movies and 3-D animated films. We have a painting called “Pandora” where he cut out a picture of the woman character from Avatar and glued her to the canvas. He's still into “Inspector Gadget” and he mixes all of these things together. He is very serious about the messages in his artworks and he has a great sense of humor that he brings to the mix.
Your press release calls this a 'visual language'–what do you mean? What is the language of Lee and what is he most trying to communicate?
Mr. Perry has his own style. He's saying and doing the same things that he was doing in the '70s and '80s but in an updated way. Lee is always outputting and he's communicating messages from Heaven–holy messages and he's very serious about them. Mr. Perry is very serious about getting these message to the people and he's doing that on stage when he preforms and when he writes or paints. He has ideas he wants to get out and he's always doing it in one way or another using the language of his style.
His place in music is well-known–although it could always be better known!–but where would you attach Lee in the visual tradition? What sort of artists does he seem to fit with? What sort of larger movements in art history would you link him to–or never link him to?
I see Mr. Perry as the greatest creative figure to ever emerge from Jamaica. And I think he is considered among the greatest creative figures of our time. When people see that his energy extends to writings and paintings and videos and that these works are as dense as his music, his legacy as a visual artist will be better understood. He makes religious paintings and text based paintings. I would put his writings next to the Bible. It is clear to me that Lee Perry is among the most exciting artists working today. No one is as raw as him. Lee Perry is the rawest and realest and this much is clear.
What particular work by Lee in this exhibition affects you most? The one you'd take home with you right now if you could?
Well–I could take them all home and just look at them by myself and with my business partner, but the point of this exhibition is to let the world see what's happening! I'm obsessed with all of the pieces but the one that is particularly significant to me is his “Curse R&B” painting. Lee made that back in 2007 when we were on tour on the West Coast. He painted it in San Luis Obispo in a hotel where we had MTV as one of the in-room channels. At that point, we had a few hotels in a row with MTV so Lee was watching a lot of music videos. Lee loves listening to new music and he was watching a lot of R&B videos at that time. I think we were watching Usher and he asked me what was wrong with the R&B music today? It wasn't a dis to Usher though because I know he likes Usher. I told him I didn't know but I had this canvas for him and if he wanted to paint it, I would mail it back to my house for safe keeping. That night he painted his “Curse R&B” using a gift card he bought at Spencer's Gifts and a text-based Obeah curse with “piss water and shit lumps.” That painting is amazing to me–to think that here is the man who invented reggae music cursing R&B music in 2007! So rare.That canvas is priceless to me! I can't imagine selling any of these paintings, but I want these in the hands of collectors who understand the significance of these works and their place in history.
Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Secret Education opens Sat., Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. at Dem Passwords, 7914-B Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Exhibition runs through Dec. 11. dempasswords.com for more information.