Kristine McKenna

Sea Desire - Lead hand engraved, and aquarium 120” x 133” (305cm. x 338cm.)
Artist Lee Jaffe is the product of a wildly exotic blend of influences. Born and raised in New York where he grew up in a Jewish home, he began his career with an interest in Dada, Symbolist poetry and Conceptualism (Jaffe was a student in the late ’60s, when Conceptualism was a big part of the art-school curriculum). He next busied himself with film and music projects, then in 1972 met reggae legend Bob Marley and moved to Jamaica. He spent the next five years playing in Marley’s band the Wailers, producing records for various artists, and immersing himself in the Rastafarian philosophy. He even grew a head of dreads.
Jaffe’s tropical sojourn came to an end in 1977 when he returned to the United States and spent the next six years hammering out a method of art making suitable to his wide-ranging concerns. His first show, in 1983, was an expression of protest against the commodification of art (work of that period incorporated fur, gold leaf and dollar bills). The unholy marriage of art and commerce is no longer a central issue for him, but his work continues to be rooted in a sense of social conscience. Among the themes he explores in an exhibition of new work at Ace Gallery are racism, the environment, the function of danger and provocation, the psychology of social relations, and the exquisite gamesmanship of Conceptualism. It’s a pretty full dance card.

Rather than merely arranging artworks in a space, Jaffe attempts to activate and transform space itself, and the massive rooms at Ace provide an epic canvas for him. This show centers on seven installations that respectively involve sound, a laser beam, a sculpture that claps and spins, and a huge aquarium filled with exotic fish and built into a painting made of lead.

Sea Desire - Lead hand engraved,  and aquarium 120” x 133” (305cm. x 338cm.)
The fish piece, titled "Sea of Desire," is delightfully outlandish. The aquarium is backed with a mirror (possibly alluding to the narcissism inherent in desire), and framed with a massive expanse of lead scribbled with personal ads culled from newspapers. The fluid purity of the water, the darting and drifting fish, and the lush lead surface telegraph the notion of desire surprisingly well–this is an intensely sensual piece.

Whereas individual pieces are consistent within themselves, Jaffe’s body of work viewed as a whole is rife with paradox. He combines found objects and low materials (a pair of dirty socks, a salami, a bull’s testicle) with elaborate fabrications and expensive handmade paper. He pays homage to obscure blues musicians in one piece, to avant-garde gurus Walter de Maria and John Cage in others. Nor does he seem particularly concerned with creating a connecting link between these various worlds–rather, he simply evokes them. The central weakness in this otherwise powerful work is that the elaborate machinery Jaffe employs threatens to upstage his ideas, which are often fragile and highly sophisticated. Rather than reflecting on the artist’s intentions, one is apt to get distracted musing on how they got these gargantuan artworks up the stairs and into the gallery.