Wachet Auf Ruft Uns Die Stimme. Photos by Malcolm Smith

To lose something is to keep it in a different form. In honor of loss, Susie J. Lee makes art out of light, sound, water, and clear acrylic, bleached of color and longing for a stable medium. Her show Refrain is a half world. It is the half that has gone missing, with disembodied words and sounds floating around in empty rooms, with video projections passing through shaky water before they hit a screen. It's a miasma of unphotographable aftershocks, in which minds circle in search of the original and the whole.

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For Lee's first solo show at Lawrimore Project—she was the star of last year's University of Washington master of fine arts class—she wrote a song instead of an artist statement. Its lyrics are soupy and romantic ("Can't bring you with me/Have to let you go again"), but they are not ironic. On the contrary: They lay out the artist's particular brand of anticool.

Her installations are balms. They are personal, intimate, subjective, and emotional. When you are with them, you are alone. Through the interplay of digital and physical elements—digital drops falling on real water, for instance—they draw you into the same kind of relationship they depict. Threadbare and tenuous, shot through with the prospect of leaving.

After I left, what resounded most in my memory—even more than the spectacle at the entrance, a flash lightning storm of tubed LED lights falling to the floor like rain in a dark vast room—was a work called Wachet Auf Ruft Uns Die Stimme.

In the middle of a dark room a dusky glow emanates from the top of a tank of water like some holy cinematic spirit. The title is from a doleful Bach cantata that Lee plays on the piano. Little more than a year ago, Lee made her name on the strength of an editioned installation. Snapped up by collectors and museums at Aqua Art Miami, it also featured a Bach soundtrack and a video, of two burning strands of twine, intertwining and unwinding like lovers. In the new work, Wachet Auf Ruft Uns Die Stimme (literally, "wake up, the voice calls to us," which in turn invokes T. S. Eliot's "Till human voices wake us, and we drown"), the video is of two injections of oil that approach each other, swirl and mix in baroque patterns, and dissipate. The action is projected upward from underneath the tank, through the water, onto a screen hanging from the ceiling. That means that the video appears in multiple incarnations: as a stable image on the floor of the tank, as a flickering ghost between tank and screen, and as a movie continuously acted upon by its filter, the water. Stomp a foot or even walk lightly, and you change the film.

Seen from a certain angle, the pinpoint of light from the projector appears on the screen in the middle of the diffuse oil, creating the momentary illusion of being underwater and looking up at a blinding sun in the clouds. Maybe it was an accident of technology. If so, it is a lucky one, a visual trope that poignantly raises the issue of cliché, a constant companion to the heavily land-mined territory of emotional life where Lee works.

Overtly poetic texts are more distracting. The material simplicity of a sculpture called Rings of Saint Genevieve is burdened by sung lyrics from the Son Volt song "Tear-Stained Eye." A wall sculpture and video of a soft white surface with shapes moving under it is accompanied by whispered lines from a Russell Edson poem heard in headphones: "And he is kissing her pubis there... And his buttocks move in and out of the wall." I never want the linguistic construction "buttocks move in and out" whispered into my ear ever again.

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Buttocks aside, Lee is onto something. She already has articulated her major themes, and the rest is editing. Refrain is a maximal leap straight into love, loss, sex, death, cinema, spectacle, poetry, sound, and serious technology, but it feels like everything slipping through your fingers. recommended

jgraves@thestranger.com

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