Maia Ruth Lee’s explosive paintings simultaneously recall grids and Rorschach tests. Her large “Bondage Baggage” sculptures sit on the ground behind her desk in her Salida, Colorado studio, and are flanked by wiry, tumbleweed-like masses of pigmented rope, exoskeletons waiting to be reworked into new shapes.
The form of each bundle determines what the next painting Lee will make, she says, reaching out of the camera frame to lift up one heavy work from the series, rotating it towards our shared Zoom screen. Next, she gestures to a large work hanging on the wall behind her—the sculpture’s cocoon burst open; its unprimed canvas is infused with an abstract pattern created by the imprint of the ropes.
In the last two decades, Lee has developed a visual language that seems to shape shift every time it is pinned down while still maintaining a fixed center. The 40-year-old artist has had solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York, and Denver, and her work has been on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It also sits in top private collections from all around the world. One of her pieces, Bondage Baggage Reader II, 2022, is currently on display at Celine’s new Miami flagship store, which just reopened earlier this month in the city's Design District, alongside artwork by contemporary artists such as Lucy Skaer, Elaine Cameron-Weir, and Simone Fattal.
Paintings like Bondage Baggage Reader II—in which black ink juts out across the canvas, its pattern recalling cracked mud or a spider web—evolved organically from their 3-D predecessors, Lee explains. “I was making these sculptures for a while, and I really wanted to figure out how to translate them onto another surface without breaking the context.” Some of these works remain condensed and 3-D, while others are unraveled: stretched out, flattened, ironed, and framed. The discarded ropes are gathered in a pile for later use (either sculptured in installations or silk-screened on top of each other). “It's perhaps an immigrant mentality of using materials,” Lee says, laughing. “Nothing wasted; everything gets used.”
Lee was born in South Korea and spent the first few years of her life traveling with her missionary family. Her parents brought her with them to Papua New Guinea and Singapore before they settled in Nepal to translate the Bible into Sherpa. There she spent her formative years exploring Kathmandu’s multicultural streets and accompanying her parents on months-long expeditions into the Himalayan regions. After attending art school in Seoul at Hongik University, Lee landed in New York City in 2011, where she found kindred spirits in the art community and lived and worked for 10 years. It’s where she created her first “Bondage Baggage” prototype with objects she had brought with her from Nepal: tarp, burlap rope, string, and tape.
Recently, she relocated to the heart of the Rocky mountains, where her husband, the photographer Peter Sutherland, grew up. “There's vast space in every direction you look—it shifted the way I worked,” Lee tells me. “In New York, I was so busy bundling everything, trying to protect everything because there's so much happening all around.” Nestled in between three mountain ranges, the artist grounds herself in the vastness of the terrain. She finds comfort in feeling small. “Seeing this very epic line that divides sky and the Earth gives me a settling feeling,” she says, recalling her childhood some 7,000 miles away. “I didn't know at the time, but looking back now, I was yearning for that, and when I came here I had a very visceral feeling; I felt like I had found it again.”