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Child's Play

For Tom Lee, the writing's on the wall.

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When Tom Lee was young, he drew cartoons to vent his anger and to express ideas that were outside the mindset of his Southern Baptist preacher father. The adult Lee is still venting through cartooning -- in this case, all over the gallery walls of Second Floor Contemporary for his exhibit "What's This?"

In the exhibit, he's challenging assumptions and asking a lot of questions -- about black-and-white morality, about polarized political thinking, about sacrifice -- that are delivered via a children's marching song, lovable killer aircraft, torn-raw canvases, and relentlessly turning circular saws.

Charcoaled directly onto the walls are Lee's version of the children's song "This Old Man" and his cartoon squadron of plump killer jets. With weapons of destruction loaded under their wings and the sign of the cross on their tail fins, these eager little crusaders blast out of their hangars spewing rockets to the accompaniment of "This old man/he play/won/he play" (untitled wall panels 1, 2, 3, and 4).

In cartoon panel number five, one of the little jets falls from the sky into the overlapping blades of circular saws. Smoke from the wreckage billows into the sky, and the words "knick knack" written across the smoke complete the shape of a large cross.

Frame six finds the determined little jet rising back up as its nose breaks out of the waves created by the teeth of the turning blades. In frame seven, the word "son" hovers in blank space above an ocean filled with circular saws.

Lee's lyrics tell the story of an old man who demands a son's complete obedience so that he can triumph ("this old man/he play/won/he play/knick knack/on a/son"). The song and cartoons bring to mind myriad and complex dynamics -- the Son of God crucified and risen, parental expectations, political patriarchy hungry for conquest, and doctrines that require blind sacrifice. The saws engulfing and resurrecting the little plane contain elements of many ideologies' hopes for life after death -- the kamikaze pilot, the Islamic soldier killed in battle, Shiva the dancing Hindu deity (who forever turns as he/she creates/destroys/creates/destroys), and the phoenix, another fearless flyer that rises out of the ashes.

No cartoon characters come miraculously back to life in Lee's last three wall panels. Instead of charcoal characters, the artist uses torn canvas and bleached bones to depict a more vulnerable state. In panel eight, a crime-scene victim is outlined with embroidery. Lee has written "knick" next to the man whose right leg has been amputated at the knee. The word "knack" and a homemade bomb are placed on the victim's other side close to where his left forearm was ripped from the canvas.

Wars are equal-opportunity victimizers and in the next frame, "Patty's whack" is administered by an eight-foot circular saw that juts from the wall and cuts a large piece of raw canvas nearly in two. The vertical slit, roughly sutured with red thread, creates a disconcertingly powerful image of a woman "whacked" by war.

The far back wall of the gallery contains the conclusion to Lee's song, "gives him back a bone." In a chillingly minimal and unglorified depiction of sacrifice, the artist completes his cycle of 10 panels using stark white bones hanging against a stark white wall.

"What's This?" projects a sense of urgency. Before you exit the gallery, look back down the hall to the back wall and that blade ripping through the canvas. It's pointing directly at you. Though the edges around the torn canvas have been crudely stitched, the rift is still there, just like the one in our country and our world split by ideologies.

In his artist's statement and in conversation, Lee speaks of breaking down barriers, avoiding categorization, questioning rather than concluding, and reasoning from multiple points of view. This exhibit challenges us to do the same. n

"What's This?" at Second Floor Contemporary through March 11th

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