To insinuate that interesting things have happened in the studio of New York graffiti legend LEE (artist Lee Quiñones) is an understatement. We may never know all the details, but the tablets hanging in his latest exhibition — his first solo show in Los Angeles — hint at good times and an ongoing exploration of creative process. “If These Walls Could Talk” features pieces of LEE's studio walls, literally chunks of wall that are hung as framed segments, along with paintings, sketch studies and color drawings that date as far back as 1977.
Quiñones, who greeted fame with the moniker LEE, is an originator of the New York graffiti movement. A Puerto Rican from the Lower East Side, he started painting subway cars in 1974 and emerged as one of a select group of avant-garde influencers of Wild Style graffiti in an art scene that absolutely exploded around the world. LEE puts it another way, “Before Instagram, there was InstaDammnnn!”
His family didn't have a car, and he remembers his mom first showing him the subway. “She introduced me by virtue of having to use the system at that time.” When he started not just riding but enthusiastically writing and painting on the trains, Quiñones says, “She stood back and took a back seat; and then subsequently, had the front-row seat to watching my career explode.”
At the time, this was not a safe or sanctioned activity, and arrest could be the least of a graffiti artist's problems. “Mom would say, 'Just come home to me.' Because I told her, this what I gotta do, Ma. This is my calling. I will come home.”
LEE fondly remembers how he fell in love with graffiti. “I picked up those cans knowing that these are colorful people, people of color being so colorful. I'm like, I want to be part of this food fight. Let's have a food fight!”
A member of the Fabulous 5 crew, LEE painted well over 100 subway car murals throughout New York's MTA system. His life was chronicled in the 1983 feature film Wild Style, in which he starred with fellow writers Lady Pink and Fab Five Freddy. In 1978 he painted his first handball court mural, iconic graffiti that's since been destroyed but left behind an eternal vibration in the New York community.
Shifting into a studio practice was not an overnight process for LEE. Funnily enough, his first experience painting on canvas happened underneath New York's City Hall, in a vacant tunnel that hadn't been used since the 1940s or '50s. “That was the only place that I knew I could just go and paint and have this weird juxtapose. I was painting on rolling stock, now I'm painting on a canvas that would be in someone's home in a different form, in a different context,” LEE says.
He floated through friends' studios and didn't commit to his own until the late 1980s. LEE's way of nurturing his ideas finally took the process off the pad or easel and straight to the studio walls, where he sorted out the thoughts and images that he brings to his work. There are two large tablets from LEE's studio in the Navy Yard, which he inhabited in the 1990s, that include scribbles of his son's height measurements over the decade he painted there, love letters to ex-girlfriends, spontaneous musings and tags from writer friends who stopped through to visit, making for a trove of graffiti history.
“This is the wall I built, not the wall that some creatures out there are trying to insinuate that we need. Anyway…,” he says.
Because one must have a sense of humor to survive in this world, LEE's humor and sociopolitical messages are the fabric of his work, and they're revealed in his process; the walls act as his sounding board. Phrases written there are his own, or borrowed song lyrics, or excerpts he heard somewhere else that reverberate later and find their way onto the wall.
The 12 sectioned tablets framed and on view in Los Angeles were cut out of a more recent studio in Brooklyn. Color tests, spray paint and marker doodles are everywhere, along with drips, and fleeting meanings. Names of paintings, like Song and a Prayer, and the title of the show itself can be deciphered from their kaleidoscopic, multilayered contents. “I phrase my work and my words the way I paint sometimes,” LEE says. “It's abstract. It means something that's direct but sometimes I just beat around to give it flavor and color.”
A show standout is Born From Many Apples, a large unfinished painting that dominates the gallery entrance. The meticulously rendered image of a subway yard with trains pulling through while a young boy walks a tightrope overhead is not about trains, or memories of the past. Instead, it's a metaphor for how you step through life. And since the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, the artist's son modeled for the image. Everything in LEE's past is in direct lineage to the present scene. It's an artwork that transcends many styles and, even in its unfinished state, LEE embraces this part of the painting's journey, something he sees as “never really finished.”
Nine Lives has a rich narrative based on the 1957 photo of African-American student Elizabeth Eckford arriving to be integrated into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The original plan for nine students to integrate the school together changed the night before, and because Eckford didn't have a phone at home, she didn't know and was alone, tormented by a mob, which included hateful white teen Hazel Bryan Massery screaming behind her. LEE chose to go into micro-detail on the hands of the females and allow redacted text to read “Those … us.” In a scoff at the way the government redacts public documents, LEE blocks out the obvious fear and hate in the girls' faces and looks at the language of frustration, shame and anger in their hands.
Several of the drawings in the exhibit are working studies for subway mural plans, some that never happened and some that did, at least for a time. In the 7 Yard is a plan for a mural for CAINE 1, a writer dear to New York graffiti history. The rough sketch features two friends, both writers, on the outside of a fence looking into the yard, scheming to paint. The Color List hangs beside it, with a methodical list of color plans for the words, characters and background. CAINE 1 was killed in early 1982, shot in the neighborhood. He was a painter LEE admired, and he didn't get to meet him until 1982, just before he died.
An exceptional color study in alcohol marker and glitter, Star Wars shows off all of LEE's technical skills including color combination, composition, lettering and his unique abstraction in background details. In the lower right corner he wrote, “LEE Strikes Again,” a few years before The Empire Strikes Back was even out.
His foresight in the graffiti scene helped set the tone for an important art movement with a loud and colorful voice. In fact, the walls do talk — and the whole world is listening.