Thaniel Ion Lee's photography is potent. As a documentation of his own body, it has an immediate visceral and emotional weight that doesn't hold back. He states in his artist's statement, "I feel that it is of the utmost importance that we (artist/art world) document as many different body types as we can, in as many different ways as we can."
When I first saw his work at the Wooster Collective, it was like a punch in the gut. The variety that I so wanted to infuse into SiouxWIRE suddenly looked a little flat. It's so easy to be fall into rhythms and thus, the obvious remedy was to contact Thaniel.
Thaniel's artist statement:
"In this world of plastic surgery shows, model search television programs, fake talent shows, and unreal reality TV. I attempt to show a body that cannot change, a body that no amount of plastic surgery will turn into a super model, a body that is not seen in pop culture magazines or MTV. In this current condition of popular culture I feel that it is of the utmost importance that we (artist/art world) document as many different body types as we can, in as many different ways as we can.
I have chosen to document the body as seen through the lens of the camera; the body in which I chose to document is my own. I was born with a condition called Arthrogryposis; this condition has left me with limited use of my arms, legs and fingers. Eleven operations have left me with many interesting scars and stories. Starting in 2000, I began to document my body and the many different shapes contained within. I hope that my work makes people look at their own bodies, and question the existing concepts of beauty that fill our current body obsessed culture"
Thaniel is also a writer and painter as well as a photographer with a unique perspective on our beauty-obsessed culture and I feel privileged to have been able to speak with him.
At what point did ‘art’ become something you wanted to pursue? And why did you choose art over sociology and has your interest in sociology lingered?
My interested in sociology is a consistent thing. It has continued and I read up on the subject a lot. Social subjects in general interest me. I’ve always been interested in the Situationists.
Seeing some of your earlier paintings, they seem much more optimistic and bright with a lot of strong colour compared to the photographic work you’ve done. Is this significant in any way?
This is more down to working style though I like to argue that even my optimistic paintings are actually darker under the surface; I haven’t painted in a long time. My early paintings were inspired by German expressionist painters and Chagall oddly enough.
Is painting something you plan on doing more of in the future?
I don’t know. For example, in June I’ll be doing an “odds & ends” show featuring paintings, Polaroids, and drawings. My first attempt at a video piece is in the works. I have been taking photos for 3 years before showing them. I don’t show a piece until I’m 100% sure that I want to show it. I have a backlog of work, if someone were willing to do a framing, I could do a show.
"I decided to be the most humourless artist ever."
Marilyn Whitesell is someone who I haven’t spoken to for a long time, she taught me about Photoshop. Deborah Clem taught me the most I know about composition and the skills I use regularly.
It seems that the word “brave” is applied to you quite a lot. Is that how you see yourself?
Not really. There was a period of time in this particular area where a lot of people were using humour. I decided to be the most humourless artist ever.
In regards to the naming of your works, at times it seems a very cold catalogue with names like “head”, “back”, or “torso” and alternatively, there are titles like “triangles” or “motion”. How do you approach the titling of your works?
Because I keep them for a long time, I catalogue them in folders. I usually don’t name things in general – if I had it my way, I would keep them all anonymous.
In your early career, you were attracted by the surrealists and Dali in particular; what was your interest?
That was actually a mis-quote. I did a show of flatbed scanner pieces and the interviewer called me and asked me to tell her about my paintings. It wasn’t a show of paintings. I said it was kind of inspired by surealism and she said, “Like Dali?” I said “no” and somehow the answer was adapted.
Have you been surprised by the reactions you’ve had to your recent work?
I wouldn’t say surprised by the people who like it and I’ve not had a whole lot of bad reactions. I’m hard headed. I was at an art show and I stood next to my work and no one knews who I was and I heard many a tyrade. “I could do that.” And they were self-portraits and I was right next to them. I wish I had a tape recorder. “Hey mom, look at that guy over there.”
"I like Francis Bacon but I wouldn’t want to look at one of his paintings first thing in the morning."
Yeah, a lot of art I don’t want in my house. I like Francis Bacon but I wouldn’t want to look at one of his paintings first thing in the morning.
Would you tell us about your “901 i statements by thaniel ion lee 2004-2007”? How did this come about and how was it compiled? For you, what does it embody?
I have insomnia, really bad sometimes. I started it, I used to do a lot of text based work and had a terrible computer crash losing a lot of this work – it came out of that. I did it as an experiment. I add to it regularly. I’m going to do a book about it.
Is there too much marketing in the “art world” in your experience?
Yes and no. I’m all pro artists making a living but for some odd reason, there is a certain chunk of the art world that I refer to as artists making art for 12 people. They’re like Jeff Koons—who can afford his art? Millionaires. Who can relate to his work? That’s just my personal opinion.
There is something of a class system in place in the art world where artists are segmented into varying degrees of acceptance from “low brow” to “high brow” or even in some quarters, disabled people are given their own niche. What’s your view on the current “art scene” and the existing “class system”?
I think it’s funny. I’ll be sending slides to galleries and I’ll get replies like “I really like your work, but we do not think your subject matter fits our gallery”. I actually gave up on the “gimp circuit” which are galleries that specialise in art by outsider artists or disabled people. I gave it up early in my career.
Who are the principle artists you admire?
Weston – photographer, oddly enough Mapplethorpe but not his people – more the flowers, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Duchamp but not his work – just his thought process, situationists international – a lot of feminists art, it’s going to sound cliché but the political end of it attracts me to it. How you view yourself and view others.
In your artist statement, you say “Eleven operations have left me with many interesting scars and stories.” – Would you share one of your stories?
These are things that happen everyday, it’s hard to explain but it effects everything. I’m going to do an experiment, I’m going to clip two singles ads and in one I’m going to mention everything and in the other I’m going to mention everything but without the wheelchair.
Would you give us some insight into what plans you have for the future and any additional works we may see from you?
There's the video which will get done when it gets done, a series of prints that I’ll be working on next month, most of my time will be getting ready for that show in June. I have 20 things to frame.
Thank you, Thaniel. It's been a pleasure speaking with you and I'm looking forward to seeing new work from you.
** Special thanks to Jim Nulty for kindly providing images of works from his personal collection for this interview
The Art of Thaniel