Spending 17 years of one’s life as a murder suspect would be an obvious source of inspiration for an artist’s murder-themed exhibition. But in the curious case of Robin Lee, he is not someone who immediately gravitates to the obvious.
His latest exhibition and, prolifically, his third one for 2013, is simply entitled Murder. It is not an exhibition for those seeking painted scenes of snuff movies. Instead, this is a collection of 10 paintings that go beyond the obvious blood and guts that we are quick to associate with the concept of murder.
Lee has chosen 10 murder cases and for each one, he has instead depicted incidental moments and nuances that surround each untimely death rather than obsessing grotesquely over the act of killing another person.
“The inspiration came from thinking about the most extreme experience that happens to a person,” he says. “I came to the conclusion that it’s birth and death, but there’s one thing more extreme than death, and that’s murder.”
“From a creative point of view it was a great discipline to work to a strict parameter and to work out how to compose a painting that, along with each accompanying written article, presents the viewer with an alternative perspective to the act itself,” Lee explains. “[I painted] a visual and emotional nuance that occurred shortly before or after the heart stopped beating.”
Choosing which 10 cases to depict was the first challenge for this exhibition. Lee researched “about 30 murders”, many of which he recalled from watching TV in the 70s with “Kenneth Kendall talking over it.”
Other cases came to him from friends in the legal profession, some from common history, from his sister who was a police officer for many years and, in one case, from contact with a murderer who is now in Broadmoor.
“I had a list of murders written on a napkin before you could say ‘CSI’,” Lee says.
Of the 10 cases he chose for the exhibition, he says the ones that affected him the most were the ones where the murderers seemed to act on impulse, such as the Louise Jensen case of 1994, which he describes as “vile”.
“Three British soldiers based in Cyprus snuffed her out as easy as you or I would buy a Kit Kat, they saw her, took her, raped her, and beat her to death with a spade with no reason or planning,” he says. “Afterwards her parents could only identify her by the rings she wore, because her head was pulp.”
Rather than paint her almost-unidentifiable corpse, Lee took a more subtle approach. He painted her clasped hands, wearing the rings that her parents would use to recognise her in the morgue, before she was in unimaginable danger.
Lee worked on that painting against the backdrop of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in London this year. “Some cretins were shouting about immigrants and Muslims, it felt like a twisted karmic loop was happening between the case I was painting and the reports I was watching on the telly.”
Conversely, Lee says the cases in which the murders were committed by mentally ill or amoral people disturbed him the least “because then you are offered a reason, it’s easier to compute somehow.”
“It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone who thinks they have the right to kill somebody but in a couple of cases the murderers had been abused by the deceased, and I don’t believe anyone can measure the pain they were in when they acted, and maybe we are all capable of murder, or at least of causing a death in self-defence, or the defence of another,” Lee muses when asked whether there were any cases in which he felt any sympathy for the killer.
Finding sitters was another challenge Lee faced when creating this exhibition. When he painted 14-month-old Lily Hicks who watched her father stab her mother and two sisters to death in 2004, he had to ask a friend if she minded if her 18-month-old daughter was painted with bloody hand prints on her bare body.
“After I explained what I was trying to achieve she was trusting and very cool about it,” says Lee. “That was the first one, after that I had no problem because if anyone was in two minds I would just say: ‘Look, if I can paint a baby witnessing the murder of her mother I don’t know why you have a problem as one of Harold Shipman’s patients’”.
The exhibition depicts imaginings from 10 horrific cases and Lee says he has not been in touch with any of the families of the victims. In choosing the final 10, he decided not to use certain cases because the murders were too recent or the legal process had not yet concluded.
“I made sure that the information I worked from was via authorised sources and if I had ‘moody’ information I dismissed it,” he says.
It was probably inevitable that a streak of black humour was going to come through in a creative process of this nature and Lee reflects on the fact that some of the murderers are now free, such as Janet Charlton. “Maybe she will turn up on opening night!”
Charlton was released from prison in 2003 for the axe murder of her boyfriend during what she described as a sex game. Lee painted her relaxing in the bath after the attack.
As for his own experience as a murder suspect, he says that it was something that he treated “as a bit of a joke” at the time. It was only when the culprit was caught 17 years later that it dawned on him that it could have been a more serious situation if “some moron copper decided to do a ‘Colin Stagg’ on me”.
As such, it is unsurprising that Lee is not a fan of capital punishment: “The death penalty is wrong on every level. If the state sanctions death on a murderer the executioner is then also a murderer. Do you then execute them? Also there are too many miscarriages of justice.”
After three exhibitions in one year, Lee is currently working on some less confronting material - “figurative and portraiture at the moment, light stuff” - but he could well return in 2014 with another challenging show.
“I am thinking of spending a couple of months in Vietnam painting victims of agent orange,” he says. “It may end up an exercise in painting irony’ seeing as America is citing chemical weapons as an excuse to pick a fight with Syria.”
Murder will run from November 8-18 at Tapestry Gallery, 51-52 Frith Street, London W1D 4SH.
See more from Robin Lee on his website here.