Elizabeth: During your undergraduate studies at the Chelsea College of Arts in London you began experimenting with photocopies, exploring the idea of the replica. Where did this idea, which was central to your practice, come from?
Lindy: Something compelled me to go into the art school library one day. Maybe I was seeking a bit of solace. I was intending to go to the section on the Italian Renaissance and rifle through the books with images of works that I’d become so attached to in Europe. I picked up a Jan van Eyck book, I think, and photocopied it. There was something mesmerising about that photocopy – something more for me than a straightforward copy. It made me think about this idea of the replica – what does it mean to be original?
Elizabeth: In the digital age, I think we forget how extraordinary photocopying must have seemed when it was invented. The replica of an image or text appearing on a piece of paper seemed magic!
Lindy: Exactly. Photocopying was a very new technology. You put a book on a glass plate and an image comes through. But it wasn’t just the image that attracted me, it was the use of carbon – magnetic carbon matter. Sometimes it would fuse onto the paper and sometimes it wouldn’t adhere properly so it would smudge. There was this incredible velvety materiality in the photocopy which was just beautiful. And then, for whatever reason, I wondered if I could build up the carbon into something new.
I started to feed these van Eyck images repeatedly through the photocopier. The image became denser and denser and more mysterious, darkening until it was just this ghostly shimmer on the surface of the paper. It was magical. Something inside of me was called to respond to that. It really was the beginning of my career.
Elizabeth: It was the materiality of the process that appealed to you, which came out of the repetition of the image?
Lindy: Yes. As I began to experiment with different kinds of paper, I realised that different textures would do other things.
Elizabeth: You even tried hessian, which was probably a little ambitious for the technology!
Lindy: And a bit naughty because I really stuffed it up for every other student who wanted to use the photocopier for a while! But I was also working in my studio and I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe I can just copy the great masters.’ So, I started to copy all these paintings. But everything was just a copy – it lacked the magic of the photocopied image. And I didn’t understand why. This became a curious question: why should the reproduction of the painting be so much more interesting, more transformative? When I’m painting a copy of it, it’s just copying.
Elizabeth: These were traditional oil paintings, copied from the great masters. What followed the period in London?
Lindy: When I came back to Sydney, I went to do my post-grad at Sydney College of the Arts where my studio was in a decommissioned men’s urinal! One evening, I was working on a painting and feeling very frustrated – nothing seemed to be working. I mixed up a waxy black oil impasto and slathered the canvas with a black paste of beeswax. Then I started to scrape into it. And in that first action, I realised this was it – I could carve into the wax. This felt like something genuine. What I have come to realise is that this process of scraping was like excavating. I was reaching back, like an archaeology of some kind. I was ‘discovering’ the image rather than trying to copy it.
I was so excited I didn’t sleep that night. Something enormous had happened. I couldn’t quite believe it. But I went back into the studio the next day and that same sense of excitement happened. There’s something about the action of uncovering, unearthing of the image through gesture.
Elizabeth: How important was the choice of images?
Lindy: The only rule was that I had to love the image.
Elizabeth: And what is it that connects these images you are drawn to? They’re very striking portraits.
Lindy: Well, I guess that’s the first clue about the identity issue. In the photocopies, I often liken the photocopies to looking at a Rembrandt. I’m not saying that I’m Rembrandt, but to me the most amazing thing about a great portrait, for instance – and Rembrandt is the greatest portraitist – is that it’s simply two-dimensional. It’s just paint. But how mesmerising is it to look into Rembrandt’s eyes in his self-portrait or the eyes of one of his sitters? You feel that person’s life unfold before you. The incredible portraits of this world have an enormous sense of the presence of the person, not just their external appearance but their innermost being. How is that possible? How does art do that?
Extract from ‘A Conversation between Elizabeth Ann Macgregor and Lindy Lee’ from the exhibition monograph Lindy Lee: Moon in a Dew Drop, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2020.