Open Frequency 2008: Jonty Lees selected by Andrew Hunt

Open Frequency 2008: Jonty Lees selected by Andrew Hunt Jonty Lees, Untitled, 2006. Credit: Jonty Lees

Andrew Hunt profiles the work of Jonty Lees


Working in sculpture, video and installation, Jonty Lees has developed a practice with a startling simplicity over the past few years. His recent exhibition at Moot in Nottingham in 2006, and his residency at Tate St Ives in 2007 presented very different approaches to an inventive body of work that show a beautiful lightness of touch.

For me, the private view card for the first of these exhibitions sums up one aspect of the artist's ability to link an impish humour and creative deftness. On it, we see two circular CND badges joined together in such a way as to suggest an old British Rail logo. Significantly, this speaks not only of Lees' enthusiasm for diesel locomotives – his work 'Strike' (2006), which consisted of two model class 20 engines circling Moot's gallery is a fantastic poke at those who have demonised 'obsessive' rail enthusiasts since the late 1970s – but also of how art links with life and the marginal through ideas of the enthusiast, the collector, and the hobbyist. Importantly, through this, his work also suggests art's potential to link with social transformation on a more general basis.

His recent residency at Tate St Ives gave the artist the opportunity to occupy a space in Porthmeor Studios' famous Number 5 studio, which was previously used by Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron. This had an undeniable influence on the work he made during that period, yet Lees' relaxed experimental approach to this loaded context produced an array of unusual works for his final exhibition. 'Tour de Studio' (2007), for example, is a video of Lees cheekily riding around his studio on a bike. In it we only see the front wheel of the bicycle and the floor of the space. We can see this irreverent act as using the history of the space's production and its site as a context for playfulness; it acts as a document of the passing of time in a creative environment or, as Michael Archer has written in the essay to the exhibition's catalogue, it is evidence of time spent valuably making art, 'because if a studio is where art is made, then maybe everything that happens there, including the accidents, can be seen as art.'

In this sense Lees was aware of the legacy of the former inhabitants of the studio, but again, as Archer points out, the artist's actions run counter to the Modernist seriousness of the St Ives School, and also connect with a generation of early video artists such as Bruce Nauman, Jan Dibbets and William Wegman, all of whom used video to show the passing time in their own studios. In this sense Lees' confinement has different implications, and the use of the bicycle, through the additional historical example of Duchamp's bicycle wheel, points to the possibility of art's effectiveness to connect to life, through the added contemporary question of art's potential to impact on environmental issues.

'You and me, we'll always have Norwich' (2007) presents two bicycle inner tubes joined together, and acts in a similar way to Richard Hughes' abject yet beautiful works, where tyres and other objects are moulded together from resin. This time an everyday puzzle results from a very particular British form of slacker culture. In terms of the use of the studio again, 'Untitled' (2007) shows a video of leaves being blown about the space through the use of an 8' x 4' piece of board, which was raised and dropped to show the potential of this external material that contains a large mass but an unusual physical lightness. 'We Salute You '(2007) also had a similar ability to confuse the viewer. For this work, Lees connected fishing line to a variety of objects on the wall to the door at the opposite end of the gallery. Each time the door was opened, the objects lifted to stand erect as if saluting each visitor. As it reached out to you, the reciprocity and generosity of this work suggested a reconnection between art within the studio to that which is outside of the studio door; simplicity, fun and wonder as an intelligent art form all come into play.

Perhaps it's works like 'Teleidoscope' and 'Casio' (both 2007) that point to the real inventiveness and the dreamlike disjuncture in Lees' practice. For the former, Lees built a set of mirrors onto the bonnet of a car, so as to provide a more varied, exciting, fragmented and kaleidoscopic view of his environment whilst driving. In it we see an astonishing array of confused viewpoints on the world. Similarly, 'Casio' is a lenticular postcard that presents an image of a wristwatch. Turn the card to the side and a blinding flash of light is shown emanating from the timepiece's glass. This effortless economy and complex nature of representation is at the heart of Lees work; in it there's always a playful and imaginative access route between each work and its audience.

I recently received a seven inch vinyl record from the artist in the post. On the cardboard packaging was written 'Dear Andy, Here's the record. It plays from the centre. Not much of a tune, but a good finale, Jonty.' Titled 'Spiral Drawing' (2003), the recording presents the sound of Lees depicting a mystery image in biro on paper in an increasingly frantic manner, while the record sleeve shows the resulting picture: a rough circular representation of the record itself. Just like Lees' recent self-referential experimentation, one can imagine the artist playing with dozens of similar ideas like this each week. What will be interesting to see is how he will take this very generous fascination in everyday materials forward, and how the results of his unbound curiosity will manifest itself.

Andrew Hunt, August 2008


Artist's biography

Jonty Lees was born in North Wales and is now based in Cornwall. He completed his MA at the Slade in 2005. He was pivotal to the 2008 group show Nought to Sixty at the ICA, London and produced a solo show for MOOT, Nottingham in 2006. He frequently exhibits across the UK and has recently completed a residency with Tate St. Ives in Cornwall. His work has previously been screened as part of the LOOP Video Festival (Barcelona, Spain) and Somewhere In-between (Galleri KiT, Trondheim, Norway) in 2005.


About Andrew Hunt

Andrew Hunt is Director of the Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, UK. He was previously curator of International Project Space, Birmingham, UK and assistant curator at Norwich Gallery, UK. He regularly organises independent projects.

Freelance exhibitions include The Affirmation, Chelsea Space, (2007), Writing in Strobe, Dicksmith Gallery (2006) and Like Beads on an Abacus Designed to Calculate Infinity, Rockwell (2004).

Publishing activities include the imprint Slimvolume, produced on a yearly basis since 2001. He is also reviews editor at Untitled, a regular contributor to Frieze, Art Monthly and a number of other journals.

Hunt is currently editing three books about contemporary art criticism collectively titled Laboratory of Synthesis with the critic Robert Garnett, to be published by Book Works during 2008 and 2009.


Open Frequency keeps you in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators, artists and writers, presenting the work of artists to watch out for over the coming year. Open Frequency represents a forward-looking glance today of the artists who will be setting the agenda tomorrow.