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From surrealist to found objects: Christian Thee
S.C. native comes home with a spectacular career and launches into another

by David Moore
Q-Notes staff

Artist Christian Thee in the studio.
A native of Columbia, artist Christian Thee is known around the globe for his spectacular creations of art. Regarded as one of today’s leading practitioners of trompe l’oeil painting, his unique style began as a natural extension of his work as a scenic designer for the theater.

For the uninitiated who are scratching their heads at this moment here’s a clue:
trompe l’oeil (trômp loi) n. pl. trompe l’oeils (loi)

1. A style of painting that gives an illusion of photographic reality.

2. A painting or effect created in this style.

In simple terms, It’s like painting a realistic-looking door or a window on a wall where there isn’t one. Thee actually painted his entire Brooklyn studio and living space in the style when the only light coming into the building was from an overhead skylight.
But we’re jumping ahead. Let’s go back to a time when Thee was a student at USC.
It was there that Thee got his first taste of theatrical design when he was appointed designer for the local community theater. Later he relocated to New York and studied with legendary stage designer Lester Polakov at Columbia University. Polakov went on to open the Forum of Stage Design in New York and Thee joined him on the teaching faculty. During this time, Thee also worked as assistant to another infamous stage designer, Jo Mielziner, and added numerous Broadway, regional and stock productions to his credentials.

“The first show I had the chance to do was the original version of ‘Hair,’” Thee recalls. Thee worked on other such notable New York stage productions as “Robber Bride Groom,” “The Subject Was Roses” and “The Boys From Syracuse.”

Now back to Thee’s trompe l’oeil studio in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly his abode became infamous around New York and he loved entertaining his friends there.
One particular evening, Thee was at home alone watching television when a friend called.

A dramatic example of Thee’s trompe l’oeil painting.
“It was about 10:30 at night,” says Thee. “My friend said he had a dinner guest who had heard about my house and wanted to see it — so he asked if they could stop by,”
That was Thee’s first encounter with Bruce Barr, the man who later became his partner and has been so for over 25 years.

“We had the theater thing in common,” says Thee. “He was working in the garment business and doing costumes for ‘Pirates of Penzance’ and ‘Follies,’ so we had a lot to talk about. He was very pleasant, so I invited him over for dinner. It was just a very nice way to meet someone.”

In the years that followed Thee and Barr often leased out the exotic abode for parties, but they always remained as hosts so they could keep an eye on things.
Many milestones in Thee’s career would occur during that time, as well. One in particular came about when a photographer for British House and Garden magazine came to take pictures of the legendary residence.

“This photographer was talking while he was taking pictures and he told me he was friends with the royal family. I thought, ‘yeah, right’ so I didn’t give much more thought to it at the time. Later when he was back in London he called me up and said he was having tea and ‘watching the telly with the Queen.’

“I was showing pictures of your work to her and she wanted to know if you would consider doing a portrait of Prince Andrew for his 21st birthday,’ he said. I just blurted out ‘yes’ immediately before I would have the time to think myself out of it.”
The life-size portrait that Thee ended up creating was hung as a centerpiece on the stage at Windsor Castle. It was unveiled at Prince Andrew’s birthday party — an event that Thee was invited to attend.

“It was quite a memorable experience,” says Thee. “I met Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Prince Andrew in the reception line. Later when I was walking past one of the rooms that had been converted into a disco I saw Princess Diana dancing with Elton John.
At one point during the evening Thee found himself standing directly across from the Queen Mother and unsure as to exactly who she was.

“I thought at first she was a famous character actress,” Thee remembers. “She was wearing a yellow lace dress and she turned to me promptly and asked, ‘Are you having a good time?’ Then I realized who she was.”

Thee recounts a brief discussion about the Queen Mother’s disillusionment regarding her doctor-ordered limitations on fly fishing and an overwhelming warmth from the woman regarded highly by so many (the Queen mother died in 2002 at age 101).

Thee is unsure of what happened to the painting during the fire that destroyed large portions of Windsor Castle in 1992. “I don’t know if it was destroyed, or if it still exists. I only have pictures of it in progress and the British photographer had told me he would send me some photos, but I never got them.”

Thee and Barr eventually sold the studio they had called home for so long and moved to a house in Connecticut.

“One day I got a call from a friend in college who asked me to come back to Columbia and design a set for a show. The setting was the Dakota Apartment building in New York, which I was very familiar with. The woman who asked me to do this was someone I had known most of my life. As it turned out — the man who wrote the play was also another college friend. I thought to myself, ‘How could I not do this?’

As fate would have it, Thee came down to paint the completed set and Barr came along to dress the set. “While I was working, this real estate agent shows him a picture of this house. After 10 years in Connecticut and all that snow, we decided to make the move to Columbia.”

These days Thee is focusing his creative energies on another form of art known as “Informale.”

“I have no idea what exactly prompted me to go for the style change,” says Thee. “I had been doing the other thing for so long I needed to do something totally different. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut! You’ve got to have fun with yourself, I was getting bored with it — so it was time to try something new.

“Informale” is a term first used in 1950s postwar Italy, referring to a “gathering of found objects into a cohesive whole and then united with paint.”

In other words, Thee is now somewhat of a stylized found objects artist. Unlike many other artists who lay claim to that field with a decided folksy or rustic touch, Thee has mixed in elements of industrial and surrealism to create found object art in a dramatic manner never before seen.

“I use all kinds of things,” Thee laughs. “From old pieces of jewelry, things that fall out of the bottom of a drawer and old molding to a giant six-inch bolt or a sculpted metal lizard paperweight.”

Thee begins the process by affixing holographic Mylar film to the surface of the base of the work.

“That step allows “light” to become a major contributor to the final work through “refraction” of the light waves into vivid prismatic accents,” says Thee. “I have become aware that each piece begins to take on it’s own identity as work progresses and I then allow that “direction” to develop to it’s own conclusion.”

The completed works are then covered with a bronze-like finish.

The results, as evidenced by the images on these pages, are spectacular.

Despite Thee’s enthusiasm about the new direction his career is taking, he’s adamant that he hasn’t abandoned trompe l’oeil.

“I haven’t left it behind and I will continue to fulfill commissions as time and desire allows,” says Thee.

On May 18 the soon to open Hopf Gallery in Columbia will debut a showing of Thee’s latest work in a presentation appropriately titled “Informale.”

info: www.christianthee.com

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