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Jake Lee's Pop Art with a punch

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Three bad guys from Lee's Vulnerable Villains series.
  • Three bad guys from Lee's Vulnerable Villains series.

Jake Lee: Hero or villain? It's hard to imagine the enthusiastic, hardworking artist as having a dark side.

But in a new series, Vulnerable Villains, Lee uses iconic imagery of comic book villains to explore ways in which the Seven Deadly Sins have bedeviled him, from egotism to drug use to emotional struggles.

Lee will debut the series this weekend at The Attic, his new studio and gallery space in the Murphy Art Center.

You don't typically don't see villains crying on the pages of classic comic books, so the 24-year-old created new portraits of characters like Dr. Doom, Red Skull and Loki, using the dewy-eyed heroes and heroines of vintage romance comics as visual inspiration.

This juxtaposition that fuels the latest series is typical of Lee's art, which transposes drawing, painting, silkscreen, image transfers and typography on a background of wood, creating the effect of a building dressed in decades of wheat-pasted advertisements and graffiti. "I use random images and put them together to create a whole new story," he says.

Lee hangs out in The Attic. - KATE LOCKHART
  • Kate Lockhart
  • Lee hangs out in The Attic.

The Toledo, Ohio-born Lee, whose given name is Jake Ziolkowski, counts among his influences Pop Art pioneer Robert Rauschenberg. He graduated from the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design with a BFA in Illustration in 2011, and moved to Indianapolis in early 2013 to take a job at Angie's List. Lee stayed with relatives in Beech Grove before moving to the Old Northside.

"We're neighbors in the Murphy Building and I see him there every day," says artist Mike Graves, who showed work at The Attic's debut in April. "He's not just contributing by putting out great work and being a hard-working artist, he's giving back by giving other artists an opportunity and place to show."

Lee hopes the third-floor studio and gallery will become a nerve center for up-and-coming local and regional artists. Since the space's opening, he's hosted an exhibit of furniture made by Herron School of Art and Design students. Future exhibits will include local photographers.

He credits lively First Friday events with generating a growing vibrancy in the local art scene. "People are engaged with the work," he says. "They're really passionate, they're talking to the artists. They're not just walking in and out."

Three more from Vulnerable Villains.
  • Three more from Vulnerable Villains.

Before his work featuring villains, Lee explored less topics like media, consumerism and beauty through images of comic book heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Sylvester Stallone and even the little girl on the side of the Morton Salt box.

Lee's new pieces are the biggest he's ever done, measuring 4 by 4 feet and hovering off the wall by as much as 6 inches. "The whole thing about Pop Art is using imagery and color to pop toward you," he says. "I wanted the physical painting to actually come toward you."

For this series, Lee says he also finally took the advice of his friend Randy Bennett, a Toledo-based artist and mentor who kept telling him to "go bigger" with his work.

Bennett praises Lee for taking a genre that can be kitschy and nostalgic into a realm of more nuanced commentary.

"He's taken the genre of Pop Art into a more serious direction," Bennett says. "By using all of the sub surface layers he creates a complexity can be a bigger comment on either the superficial top layer or the work itself."

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