Evan Lee's Elders and Roots works around photography

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Evan Lee: Elders and Roots
At the Richmond Art Gallery until June 15

Critics have observed that Evan Lee does not work with photography but around it, exploring its social, technical, and conceptual possibilities.

His new exhibition, Elders and Roots, at the Richmond Art Gallery, brings together “camera-less” colour photographs of ginseng roots, made using a desktop scanner; graphite drawings of elderly women, based on photographs shot by the artist; and a black-and-white video of a white-bearded worker on a construction site, composed of a sequence of still photos, again taken by the artist.

While variously reconsidering the photographic medium, these three different bodies of work are also bound together by the entwined themes of migration, globalism, and—unexpectedly—portraiture. Subthemes of labour, old age, and surveillance also emerge here.

The small size of most of the works in Lee’s show, which is guest-curated by Bill Jeffries, creates a kind of intimacy between image and viewer. This is especially true of “Old Women”, his 36 small pencil drawings based on photos he took on the streets and in the alleys of East Vancouver. Each work, executed with a deft and delicate hand, features an elderly Chinese-Canadian woman walking or standing, carrying shopping bags or pushing a grocery cart, leaning on a cane or swinging a furled umbrella, bundled up against the winter cold or lightly dressed in warm weather.

In his curatorial essay, Jeffries notes that whether shopping or searching for castoffs and recyclables, these old women are “gleaning”; they’re engaged in a meaningful activity that links them to work and survival through ages past. Lee’s drawings ask us to consider how migration and capitalism have affected both the traditional roles people play and the ways different cultures treat their oldest members.

Because Lee has eliminated their urban surroundings, isolating the image of each old woman on the sheet of white paper, his subjects are suspended in an indeterminate time and place. The act of suspension and removal, of making drawings from photos of people who seem to be unaware they’re being photographed, somewhat mitigates their alignment with surveillance culture.

Yet these images and the street photos they’re based on can still be understood within the idea of “capture”—the act of laying hold of random images and, indeed, people that has characterized both the history of photography and Lee’s metaphorical investigation of the medium.

Capture, surveillance, and voyeurism certainly inform the video, Manual Labour. This silent, continuously looping sequence of black-and-white photos was taken on a residential construction site, apparently through a hole in a garage wall. The ostensible subject here is an elderly South Asian man who labours with a pick and shovel, or sits on an upturned plastic bucket, resting.

At one point in the looped images, younger people, presumably the owners, visit the site. They are of East Asian descent, complicating this picture of migration and labour, and posing questions about privilege, deprivation, and social isolation.

The three dozen colour prints of ginseng roots, reproduced to scale, beautifully enhance the similarity between these plant forms and the human face and figure. The ginseng subject is an ongoing one for Lee, who uses it to evoke a range of sensations and ideas, from childhood memories of Chinatown shopping trips with his parents to the ways cultural values and goods travel the world with migrating peoples. Here, ginseng works as a symbol of both roots and elders.

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