at the Evanston Art Center, through May 19

Li Lin Lee’s paintings on burlap are intriguing fence sitters. Vacillating between representation and abstraction, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, they reject fixity in favor of open-endedness. And like most significant experiences in life, they’re somewhat confounding–the best of them stubbornly resist classification and interpretation.

Though Lee is exhibiting only three works at the Evanston Art Center, it’s by no means a small show. Each of the three–Corban Ephphatha VII (1991-’92), Casa de Amor III, and Casa de Amor IV (both 1992-’93)–consists of 16 to 20 separate panels. And each panel and group contains such varied qualities–organic and geometric, large and small, heavy and light, hot and cool, shallow and vast, restless and serene–that complex seems too tame a word. Better to call them Whitmanesque, for like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Lee’s paintings are rich, wide-ranging catalogs that celebrate both the very small and the very large, the seen and the unseen.

One panel in particular in Casa de Amor III–a work made up of 30-by-40-inch panels arranged in two rows of ten–resonates with tantalizing contradictions. Its imagery is simple: large, centrally placed concentric circles rest atop two broad, thickly painted horizontal bands. But its colors are unexpected: the hot, unstable orange and red at the bottom of the canvas work against the stabilizing effect of their low placement and horizontal movement, while the coolness of the gray radiating circles seems at odds with their energetic outward movement. Such a direct, intuitive approach to nature harks back to works by van Gogh and Arthur Dove; in this and other panels Lee’s radiating circles seem indebted both to Dove’s Silver Sun (1929) at the Art Institute of Chicago and to the swirling skies of van Gogh landscapes, especially The Starry Night.

Elsewhere in Casa de Amor III Lee trades the expansive space of landscape for the shallow space of an extreme close-up: one panel features deep green, overlapping arched shapes that, though abstract, recall such natural objects as pinecones and flower petals. Unlike many other panels in the piece, it has no central image, no element of opposition, just calming repetition and uniformity.

Lee, who’s lived in Chicago since 1982, was born in 1955 in Djakarta, Indonesia; his family emigrated to the United States in 1962. His father was trained in classical Chinese painting, but Lee studied biochemistry (he holds a BS from the University of Pittsburgh). Something of that discipline’s investigations of structure and transformation comes through in the additive process Lee employs: most of his individual panels are thick with paint, the final image only the last of many. Traces of these previous stages can sometimes be seen at the edges of each canvas, so that even when a new image obliterates what’s come before, a few hints of the painting’s history remain. In one of Casa de Amor III’s panels a hollow, oval-shaped garland of black and gray “petals” obscures much of the painting’s previous layers (a bright yellow quatrefoil and several other yellow and yellow-green layers). The heavy black oval contrasts violently with the delicate underlayers, like a booming tympanum over the barely audible high note of a flute or violin. The profoundly musical effect of this and other panels (I especially like one in which a deep violet quatrefoil vibrates against a white ground) is exactly what Kandinsky envisioned for abstract painting.

Instances of merging and separation, usually embodied in overlapping versus interlocking shapes, abound in Lee’s work. A panel in Corban Ephphatha VII features a yellow crescent silhouetted against large black lozenges that hover against a blood-red background; the crescent pierces a green and red hill-like shape at the base of the panel, changing tone just slightly where the two shapes intersect. Sometimes surface images remain resolutely separate from underlayers, as in one of the panels of Casa de Amor III whose central shape is a glowing deep blue hexagon. It’s the one truly hard-edged form in the show and the only one seen from above. Among all the other flat, frontal images this hexagon’s a puzzling anomaly–either an unfortunate misstep or a harbinger of the even greater spatial complexities Lee could achieve using multiple points of view.

Sometimes tiny relative to their canvases, sometimes massive, Lee’s shapes are either geometric and abstract (quatrefoils, circles, rectangles, and ovals) or evocative of man-made and natural forms (hourglasses, curling tendrils, petals, the sun and moon). Then there are those both unnameable and unforgettable. In Corban Ephphatha VII and Casa de Amor III Lee paints a strange sacklike shape (black in one instance, white in the other) that seems caught in a moment of transition: covered with rows of dots bleeding off into the surrounding area, it has a bulbous form with an odd little “tail” emerging from its neck and appears to shed a ragged red “skin” that hangs below and to the side. Twice in Casa de Amor III Lee paints a linear rectangle with meandering lines attached to its corners, one of which ends in a white egglike oval. Like an idiosyncratic, even humorous symbol for the self, it’s not quite the same in each appearance: in one panel the egg shape is concave, in the other convex.

Lee’s use of repeated but slightly varied images is entirely in keeping with the open-ended character of these works. With each showing of his paintings he changes their placement, creating new juxtapositions (the arrangement of the panels of Corban Ephphatha VII in the gallery is not the same shown in the accompanying photograph). And, as the most thickly painted panels attest, he incessantly reworks some of his canvases. It’s their changeability, their refusal of permanence and finality, that make Lee’s paintings so celebratory of nature. It’s also what anchors them in the 90s, giving them a contemporary, postmodern spin (after all, in style they look back to Dove as well as to the surreal vein of abstract expressionism explored by William Baziotes and Adolph Gottlieb in the 40s and 50s).

There’s only one unfortunate aspect to Lee’s grouping of small works into larger wholes: the canvases are for sale individually. Some panels don’t seem capable of standing alone. In Casa de Amor IV a panel covered with orange and white zigzag lines works well as a frenzied, staccato passage, but by itself is relatively uninteresting. More important, within each piece there are essential images whose presence unquestionably enriches the whole. In Casa de Amor IV two panels act as linchpins, lending the work astonishing breadth. One features five joyful, expansive yellow-white rings, the other several rows of somber black circles. To be honest I can’t imagine this piece without either panel–to retain its truthfulness to both nature and human experience it needs both extremes.