Jocelyn Lee is U.S. based, Naples-born artist who has been making psychological portraits for over 35 years. Lee’s work is a study of the “tactile and sensual nature of the world and our place, as embodied beings, within this material continuum”. Most recently she has been making portraits addressing the invisibility of mature women and “with her sensual treatment of these subjects, calls them back into relevance in a society that has deemed them undesirable and invisible”. Nakedness is a central aspect of Lee’s work and regardless of the content, be it flowers or bodies she embraces that natural imperfection that beauty relies on. Her subjects are removed from their social context and returned to their unadorned state and the natural world.
In a video produced for GirlGaze Lee says that “when people take off their clothes something really interesting happens. They become more honest somehow. More awkward, more sincere. It is not comfortable necessarily, but it does lead to a kind of frankness. I like that.” I find this idea of frankness incredibly refreshing. So often when discussing the nude female form we refer to it as honest, as if we are hiding and being sneaky about our true forms. It implies dishonesty. And perhaps we are, on the whole, taught to be dishonest about our bodies. Bombarded from every angle of our lives with messages on how to hide that lump, cover that spot, reverse our age, shrink our waists, enlarge our butts, fix our hair...the list is never-ending and constantly expanding. The implication is that we are somehow broken and need to be repaired or hidden away. Our value is then, indirectly and directly, being related to our form. Lee's experience with nudity as frankness is powerful. Frankness is disarming, unapologetic and in a way returns ownership to that body.
One of the things that struck me when first experiencing Lee’s work is how she has managed to not abuse the power relationship that exists in photography. The language around photographing is representative of the power dynamic inherent in it (ie: We take/capture a photo). This has always created a problem when photographing nude bodies. There is concern about overexploitation. I feel that as women we are taught that everyone except us is an authority and it is reinforced in our social systems and the images we absorb. In Lee’s project Bountiful I feel that self-ownership of the subject. As if they have allowed her to have a picture of them and not that she has taken it.
Her current focus on the sensuality and existence of mature women is refreshing and important. As stated in her book, Sovereign, “Where they were once seen as deserving of cultural attention, as women age into their fifties they become not only invisible but experience a denial of their bodies as a locus of sensual pleasure. The idea of an older woman feeling sexy, happy, and comfortable in her naked body is often met with disgust and discomfort... No body is deserving of invisibility and I believe this work marks a long-overdue paradigm shift. It’s time we revolutionize the image world and flood it with women in real bodies, feeling sensual and wonderful in their human skin.” Lee’s work is an important juxtaposition to what we are used to seeing and hearing and being sold. In an interview with Ageist she remarked that “Commercially, the work has been hard to promote, sell or publish. I’m not making photographs that many people will buy to hang in their homes, and it’s very hard to publish this work and to find galleries willing to show it”. And this really is the problem, isn't it? The narrative needs to be changed in relation to how we value the depictions of the body if we are to reach a healthier societal viewpoint. In order to do that those ideas and images need exposure. Art, at its best, challenges us in some way. We can love a piece deeply for its technical skill, color palette, witticisms, et cetera, but what keeps us coming back is its provocative nature. Something about it just nags in a not unpleasant way. If Mona Lisa’s smile wasn’t so vague she wouldn’t hold our hearts the way she does. Lee’s women are masterfully made depictions of what is already there, waiting for us to cherish. Her work is a reminder that we could all use a little more frankness and a lot less fiction in our lives.