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Nikki S. Lee: Parts at Kemper Museum
Nikki S. Lee, Part 18 (detail), 2003; c-prit mounted on aluminum, 30 x 24 inches; Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University Foundation Art Collection.

KANSAS CITY, MO.-When we observe strangers from afar—for instance, a couple dining in a restaurant— we are often tempted to invent stories about their lives and wonder what their relationships are really like. In her latest series of photographic works, Parts, Korean-born, New York-based artist Nikki S. Lee explores this idea at length, presenting scenes between men and women in a variety of locales—in the back seat of a London taxicab, on a fire escape in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, at the aquarium of the Bronx Zoo.

The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art presents 11 of Lee’s large-scale photographs in Nikki S. Lee: Parts, on view through December 11, 2005. In Parts, Lee poses alongside a nameless, faceless male figure whose body and face are deliberately cropped out of the frame. Lee’s men are only identified by an arm draped over her shoulders, a hand resting on her thigh, etc. The result is a highly charged moment of emotion and uncertainty, an unresolved narrative that beckons the viewer’s imagination and invites questions about the dynamics of relationships and Lee’s true persona within the multiple identities she assumes in her artwork.

Lee first gained recognition for her combination of performance and photography with Projects, a five-year series of photographs begun in 1997 that demonstrated her ability to change identities and become a part of a variety of different subcultures and social and ethnic groups—yuppies, punks, young Hispanic women, strippers, suburban skateboarders. Lee observed each group, adopted their mannerisms and ways of dressing, and became a part of their social scene.

With Parts, Lee moves from the study of the assimilation of one person into a group to the study of the personal interactions and emotional undertones between men and women. The recurring theme of the absent lover, indicated by the deliberately cropped compositions that slice the man out of the picture and narrow the focus to Lee, suggests Lee’s own search for autonomy in relationships through self-portraiture.

“Although Lee denies that these are necessarily break-up pictures, it is impossible to look at them and not interpret them as signifiers of loss or, at the very least, of emotional import,” Elizabeth Dunbar, curator at the Kemper Museum, writes in an essay that accompanies the exhibition. “These images commemorate seemingly ordinary moments in everyday lives, snippets that suggest the vast range of feelings and emotions that every person in a relationship has had at one time or another, including boredom, happiness, frustration, security, wonder, playfulness, diffidence, and all the variations in between.”

Born in South Korea in 1970, Nikki S. Lee moved to New York in 1994, where she currently lives and works. She received her A.A.S. at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1996 and her M.A. in photography at New York University in 1999. Recently she has had solo exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.

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