PHOTOS: Ruckus
︎ KMAC Museum, Louisville

The Ideal Viewer

Rarely does one get the opportunity to step inside the physical and emotional perspective of another person’s corporal experience, while simultaneously being hyper aware of their own. Thaniel Ion Lee’s exhibition The Ideal Viewer at KMAC Museum is a glimpse inside the life of an artist who must navigate a world that is flawed in both physical and institutional design for bodies existing outside the ideal form. Lee’s work is a diverse and complex survey that examines the historical and current social treatment of people living with disabilities or unique bodies. The artist focuses on the physical treatment of body in the majority of his work, blurring the line between ostracized bodies and those held in admiration. While there is a definitive connection to the body in every work on view, Lee does not place his work discreetly within larger movements of disability activism. He uses humor and complicated layers of satire to illuminate our current social treatment of any outsider body and to ask who the ideal viewer is.

The Ideal Viewer exhibits work made throughout the duration of Lee’s career, highlighting his immense creative energy and use of multiple mediums and technologies. Despite his physical limitations, Lee works with any medium he desires including photography, scored performances, digital drawing and painting, sound installation, object based installation, and many other contemporary art practices. He is not committed to a single style or material and uses whatever is necessary to best represent his idea. Lee often employs traditional media and modifies the process to work for his body, such as drawing and painting with his mouth or a digital tablet. Upon entering Lee’s exhibition, it is hard to imagine all of the work came from the same artist.

hand (2005), a photo of Lee’s hand, depicts one of many scars he received during surgeries as a child. hand is hung at the height of 2’ 5” off the ground: the height of Lee’s hand while he draws from his chair. The decision to hang the art in relation to a body causes the viewer to momentarily step into another’s  body. You can feel the trauma of the scar and the obstacle of having to draw at that height. When bending down to see the photo, most viewers experience a momentary inconvenience that serves as a reminder of the basic abilities we take for granted and how hard others might have to work to complete simple tasks. In the case of 100,000 (2003) the reference to a body is not as direct. The work is an 8.5 x 11” piece of paper with the repeated sentence: “During the period of Nazi Horror in Germany, over 100,000 disabled people were executed.” Hung at ankle height, the piece conjures images of chains linking prisoners, people shuffling in line as they were forced into mass execution chambers, or even the shallow graves in which they were buried.

In contrast to personal and historical narrative of hand (2005) where Lee shows his physical scars from living with a degenerative disease and 100,000 (2003) that reminds the viewer of the atrocious acts committed against disabled people throughout history, across the gallery sits Gold throne (2018). A literal golden miniature replica of Thaniel’s wheelchair sits on top of a 6’ 7” pedestal, the height of Tim Furnish, a local musician and friend of the artist, on his tiptoes. Unless you are very tall it is hard to see the wheelchair at all, which renders the object a glorified idol that defies worship. The wheelchair seems like an idol because it is painted in a symbolically precious material yet it is awkwardly placed out of reach. The diminutive scale of the object and the exaggerated presentation simultaneously evoke a desire for admiration and an underwhelming experience with the totem. Similarly, people living with disabilities are often glorified but also exiled from normative society. Because they are treated as a hero and live through difficult circumstances, disabled individuals are left outside of normative society and excluded from ever having a chance at feeling fully accepted. Lee describes this feeling of exclusion in his work Normal Life (2003), a text work where he repeats a transcribed situation between himself and a woman who rejected him because she wanted a “normal life”. Normal Life questions the construct of normalcy through an outsider’s perspective. Lee’s day to day experience is normal to him but to others is completely foreign which raises the question; at what point do we assign normalcy to an existence different than our own?

Lee both participates in and takes inspiration from outsider art. The imagery and style used in his digital drawings come from Lee’s interest in underground music and culture. He embraces anything that is abject or non-conforming. In particular, Skull (2016)  confronts the viewer with their own mortality. The large skull is filled with intertwined depictions of decaying foliage and tissues. Multiple orifices cluster together and cover much of the surface, allowing the viewer to penetrate the tissue and enter into the dark void beyond the decay. Eyeballs also cover the skull, adding more orifices or portals to be explored. Lee’s interests in both the gruesome and desirable push further away from any type of normative behavior. In Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror, she describes a person who participates in abjection: “The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing.” By embracing that which is rejected and expelled from society, one expels themself and creates a new being. Abjection is a means of self-destruction and rebirth into the unconscious desires that most of the world seeks to repress.

Lee creates his own world, systems, and visual representations of his experience. 20 percent (2003), hung at 5’ 10” for the average height of the American male, is a 10 x 10 grid of blue dots, 20 of which are enclosed with red squares. This creates a visual representation of the population of individuals living with a disability in 1997. Here, Lee has begun to explore the practices of 20th-century conceptualism and borrows techniques from artists such as Sol LeWitt. Lee created 20 percent based on data gathered from a census and has visually represented it using computer software.. Similarly, LeWitt would come up with a set of instructions for a team of engineers and construction fabricators to bring his ideas to life. In Four-Sided Pyramid (1965), for example, LeWitt used information from a 1961 repeal of early 20th-century setback laws for New York City skyscrapers while also alluding to the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. Lee also uses this device in Dice painting number one [performed by Denise Furnish] (2013), in which he invited another artist to execute a set of his own directions. The directions were as follows:

1. On a surface provided, or available, draw a light grid of square. The dimensions of the squares should be at least 1 inch square, but no more than 6 inch square.
2. Pick six colors. One of these colors should be black and one should be neutral. The other 4 colors are to be chosen by the maker of the work.
3. Number the color 1 – 6 at random.
4. Acquire two 6 sided die.
5. Roll the dice and paint each square the color the dice has chosen.
6. Repeat number 5 until each block is full.

Furnish painted and quilted together found material which formed a 9 x 6 grid. Again, Lee has created his own system for creation where the final product is controlled by chance and another artist’s personal aesthetic. Living as an outsider Lee has become accustomed to adapting to the world and creating his own tools to help him maneuver the ever changing obstacles that come at random. In this work, he is taking control of the creative process while leaving room for that same randomness that often moves life in an unintended direction. Letting chance and exterior forces dictate the outcome of the work shows that no matter how hard one might try, life has a way of altering any path.

The Ideal Viewer gives a unique insight to an outside perspective of the world. While twenty percent of the population lives with a disability, it is hard to understand their experience without entering into a disabled body. Lee uses his reality to show the world his own experience, which includes the gruesome and morbid. Through his systems and use of the abject, the public is invited to embody and embrace that which they might not understand.


The Ideal Viewer is on display in the 3rd Floor Gallery at KMAC until May 27.

KMAC Museum is located at  715 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202 and is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-6pm and Sunday from 10am-5pm.

  • KMAC Museum
  • Thaniel Ion Lee
  • Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Jake Ford, Guest Contributor to Ruckus

Skull (2016), gicleé print on ultrasmooth paper.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY