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Lindy Lee & Robert Scott-Mitchell
By Peter Kohn

Paying homage to the diverse cultural rainbow in which she has lived her life, Chinese-Australian artist Lindy Lee uses a blend of art and technology in her works. Her partner Robert Scott-Mitchell masterminds the transition of the art to digital print.

Growing up in Brisbane in the 1960s and 1970s, acclaimed Australian visual artist Lindy Lee found it a challenge to retain her identity and follow the precepts of her Chinese heritage.

lindy 250.gifrobc-u 250.gifShe recalls the tension between the philosophies and culture of her parents, who arrived in Australia from southern China after World War II, punctuated by the patient wisdom of their Buddhist tradition, and the Anglo-Celtic host culture of her 1959 schoolyard in the new land in which she was born.

A practising Zen Buddhist who understands inclusiveness, Lee has come to terms with the universality of life in the land of Oz. She appreciates the synthesis of the old and the new that have fused to create her blended identity as a Chinese-Australian.

Lee started exhibiting her paintings in 1980 and staged her first solo exhibition in 1984. For more than 30 years, most of them in a long relationship with Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley Galleries, she has used her art to portray the antipodean handshake of cultures.

Her latest exhibition at Roslyn Oxley is titled Dark Star, the ‘dark’ being a Buddhist metaphor for the awesome power of freedom, in Zen terms, a liberation from illusion. Her use of Kuanyin, a Buddhist figurine, is a central theme of the collection.

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Guttei & the Shieldmaiden, 2004. 150 x 160cm archival pigment ink, acrylic and wax on boards. Original photographs by Robert Scott-Mitchell. Courtesy Sutton Gallery, Melbourne

Like the strands that combine to make her who she is, Lee’s art is also a pastiche of many sources. “I’m a painter by practice and I use acrylic paint, I use photographs my mother has brought back from China or that Robert [Scott-Mitchell, her husband and a professional photographer], has taken during our frequent travels in China,” she says. The pair work as a team, Lee engaging locals in conversation, Scott-Mitchell shooting around them.

A key element of her art is reproductive printing using a digital wide-format printer. Lee’s blend of photography and paintings is printed, often with a manual overlay of additional painting or the addition of molten wax for a tactile, three-dimensional effect.

Speaking to Digital Reproduction from her studio in Sydney, Lee discusses the relationship of painting to photography. “The arrival of photography liberated painting, as it was no longer seen as the means by which to record. Photography does that much more faithfully. It opened new realms for painting.”

In some ways, she sees the arrival of digital printing as the next frontier, a space in which illustration and photography can combine seamlessly. She
is candid about the role that reproductive print plays in her works. She is aware that it is a derivative form of output, but what could celebrate the Australian experience more brilliantly than a flash of innovation?

“We live in a ‘reception’ culture that draws on most of the cultures of the world. We’re derivative, we’re, if you like, second-degree, but our experiences are no less authentic for it. Reproductive printing is a different medium to painting, but it is not inferior to it as a means of expression.”

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Dark Star, 2006. archival pigment inks on pure cotton canvas. 210 x 61cm. Original photograph by Robert Scott-Mitchell. Digitall printing by Blackstone Images, courtesy of Roslyn Oxley Gallery, Sydney

Lee offers us an introspective window to what makes her tick. “I’ve got my Chinese heritage but because I grew up in Australia, I’m in a sense, a ‘bad copy’. I’m only as Chinese as a Queenslander can be. Reproductive art is like me. It doesn’t fit into an ideal. So I have a curious affection for print as art. It is its own medium and totally authentic.”

From concept to finished art

Once Lee has selected a photograph, she and Scott-Mitchell refine the image in Adobe Photoshop where it is de-saturated and filtered. They then use Photoshop’s layer blends to ‘ghost’ the images “to give them a more painterly feel than the crispness you normally associate with photography.” The desaturated images are then blended with a solid colour, to match the acrylic paints with Epson pigment-inks.

His templating of Lee’s acrylic paint palette to corresponding printed colours was a painstaking trial-and-error process he began for dyes used with an Epson 1290, graduating in time to a pigment-ink Epson 2100 for Lee’s standard A3 grids, and more recently to a 44”-wide 9600. In 2006 Scott-Mitchell launched Blackstone Images (a fine-art printing service for artists and photographers).

“Lindy used to work with an old analogue B&W photocopier, putting hand-painted Stonehenge paper through over and over again. When the copier died, the newer copiers couldn’t take handpainted papers. With the development of digital printing, we began to use Epson printers,” recalls Scott-Mitchell.

The matching process changes, depending on the media they use. In the past six months, they have begun making a lot more canvas banners (GMS Natural Zero), which required some tweaking of the templates. And Hawk Mountain papers are another favourite, both of which are available through Bruce Connolly at Giclee Media Supplies.

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Lily-Amah. Printed with archival pigment inks on pure cotton canvas, 210 x 61cm.

Lee uses only 100 per cent fine-art cotton canvas and papers and, with archivability a priority, she refrains from using optical brighteners.

The prints are mounted on dibond (2-3mm thick), using an acrylic adhesive film, by Graphic Art Mount in Sydney. Dibond is the European industry standard for mounting photographs. It is a material primarily used in architecture – very lightweight, stable, durable and archivally-rated.

The size and weight of Lee’s mounted works presents the risk of scuffing during moving at the gallery. Scott-Mitchell credits Connolly at Giclee Media with suggesting an aqueous laminate to solve the problem.

The mounted artwork is finished with Aquacryl, a water-based liquid laminate that is sprayed on with a high-volume, low-pressure spraygun and bonds with the paint and ink to form a durable, scuff-proof surface. (“Conservators are horrified at the use of plastic laminate glued on top of the artwork, so the water-based product is the way to go,” says Scott-Mitchell).

“Lindy has never liked stretched canvas. She just wants it to hang as banners on the wall. But we had big curling issues, and when I spray it, it curls even more. We started ironing cotton interfacing onto the back, but that was so ridiculously labour-intensive.

“We’ve now found a framer in Sydney who has a giant hot-press. Having printed the canvas and sprayed it, we use a sheet of plain canvas to laminate onto the back of the printed canvas and bond them together. The problem of curling has largely been solved now.”

Lee often takes the process a step further, splattering a hot wax onto the surface. The wax has been pigmented with the same colours as the inks and the overlay gives the already variegated artwork a third dimension. The challenge for Scott-Mitchell is, in his words, to “bullet-proof” the surface so that it can take the wax. It’s not the sort of burden a digital print is normally required to bear!

Painted boards and various ink washes are then added by Lee to complete her multi-panel grids, ready for exhibiting. Says Scott-Mitchell: “It ends up being a mixed-media work in the truest sense of the term.”

Lindy Lee is represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney,
Sutton Gallery in Melbourne, and Valentine Willy Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur.

Rob Scott-Mitchell/Blackstone Images.