Oakland, California-based artist Dionne Lee employs video, collage, photography, and sculpture to explore the American landscape and her place within its complex history. As an African American woman, she sees the natural world as both a place of refuge and tranquility, but also the location of racial violence, danger, and vulnerability. More broadly, her work acknowledges the terror of climate change, mass migration, and humanity’s ongoing drama of survival. Duality often surfaces in work where she notes that “two things can be true at once.”
Lee often manipulates found imagery in the darkroom in a process both organic and intuitive. The exhibition contains many fragments of photographs from her many wilderness survival manuals and vintage color magazines offering majestic views of “the great outdoors.” The survival manuals offer detailed, step-by-step directions on building a lean-to or foraging for food and water. Lee has become adept at these skills herself, thus reclaiming her connection to the earth and salvaging nearly-lost ancestral skills and knowledge. As the earth continues to shift beneath our feet, Lee asks what determines survival: not just who has what, but who knows how.
Lee’s darkroom practice has the same sense of intervention and disruption. With a forceful irreverence for the sacred silver gelatin printing process, she deconstructs photography itself. Lee draws with graphite directly on prints before and after she exposes them. She pulls negatives across the scanning bed to create painterly abstractions. She tears, crumples, solarizes, and double-exposes fragments of information, challenging both photography’s purpose and authorship along with any idealized and colonialist view of the earth.
This catalog includes an essay by Light Work’s associate director Mary Lee Hodgens.
Dionne Lee, born in New York City and based in Oakland, received her MFA from California College of the Arts in 2017. Her work has been exhibited at Aperture Foundation and the school of the International Center of Photography in New York City; and throughout the Bay Area including Aggregate Space, LAND AND SEA, Interface, and the San Francisco Arts Commission. In 2016 Dionne was awarded the Barclay Simpson Award and a Graduate Fellowship at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. In 2019 she was an artist in residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock and a finalist for the SFMoMa SECA and San Francisco Artadia awards. She was Art Forum magazine’s Critic’s Pick in 2017 and 2019 and currently teaches photography at Stanford University and San Francisco Art Institute.