Multimedia artist’s new ‘Symphony of Sickness’ series riffs on heavy metal band logos

Rorschach blots. Crabs. Tangled hair. Spiderwebs. Every fan of artist Jason Lee sees something different in the prints, video and wall-mounted sculptures that comprise his multimedia project, “Symphony of Sickness.”

Since those works are all about illegibility, that’s just how Lee — associate professor of sculpture at the West Virginia University College of Creative Arts — likes it. 

The actual source material for Lee’s images isn’t easy to guess, but once you know, it clicks. Each of his complex forms is composed of multiple heavy metal band logos superimposed on top of each other. 

Even his project title is the name of an album by a metal band, Carcass. For both Lee and Carcass, “Symphony of Sickness” uses “sick” in the slang sense of the term.

“In the metal scene, when something’s ‘sick,’ it’s good,” Lee said. “It’s a symphony of sickness because it’s a number of elements coming together to create something new, something ‘sick’ yet cohesive.”

Lee began working on “Symphony of Sickness” in 2019, supported by a faculty research grant. Artists Image Resources in Pittsburgh collaborated with Lee on printmaking and mounted the first exhibition of works from the series this summer.

Metal band logos are famously difficult to decipher, to a degree that Lee said has become “tongue in cheek.” Intrigued by their illegibility, he decided to obscure the logos even more by stacking them — rendering them in layer upon textural layer of “velvety,” thick black ink.

“A lot of my work is generated by countercultures,” Lee said. “I have a series based on skateboarding, and another based on punk rock. I was partially raised in a mom-and-pop circus, a counterculture that was a little world unto itself, and I’ve made work about that as well.” 

In 2015, his good friend, Jim Konya, died. Konya was a musician active in the heavy metal counterculture and was featured on more than 100 records at the time of his passing. Konya was from Parma, Ohio, and after he passed, he was issued the key to the city.

“A guy who played in bands called Nun Slaughter and Spawn of Satan getting a key to the city — that got me. He had such a huge impact. I started thinking about that overlap between worlds and playing around with a logo from one of Jim’s bands. I cut out a few versions with a laser cutter, started stacking them and it just happened,” Lee said.

“I put one on top of another and the light bulb went off, where I saw this logo that is meant to communicate, that is used as a band’s signifier, but you have to be in the know to understand it. There’s a certain amount of gatekeeping and there’s a barrier to the outside world. The thing they use to identify themselves also obscures that identity.”

By printing many logos on top of each other, Lee said he’s “commenting on how ubiquitous these illegible logos are. I’m obscuring them while also unifying them into an encompassing structure. Through that, you get this abstracted form that evokes imagery, like you’re staring at a cloud.”

Once Lee knew he wanted to combine multiple logos, the research began.

“My only criteria for selecting logos were that – apart from Jim’s band – I couldn’t be able to read them or know what they said, they had to be symmetrical, and I had to be able to cut them out all in one piece.”

To create each print, Lee cut logo outlines from a linoleum block, then printed one after another on a sheet of paper. Most prints incorporate between 10 and 25 logos each, some stack more than 30. Lee has completed 60 prints, aiming for 100.

“This is probably what I’m doing for the next five or six years,” he said, focusing increasingly on sculpture.

Logo stacking happens digitally for the sculptures, which are created from computer designs with a water jet cutter at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering’s Lane Innovation Hub.  

“The sculptural pieces have 20 alternating layers  of resin and paint,” Lee said. “That’s why their surfaces seem so deep. It’s not just one layer of black, so it feels like you can look into the void.”

There’s also video art with its own heavy metal soundtrack. For the installation, a musician recorded nine minutes of distorted guitar. That plays through an amplifier while a projector flashes the black outline of each individual logo onto the wall so rapidly that the sequential video frames seem to overlap in time just as the printed logos overlap on paper.

“New shapes appear, like those old Magic Eye posters that were supposed to become three-dimensional if you stared at them long enough and let your eyes defocus,” Lee said.

The guitar track and patterns of light create a symphony that’s totally sick, colloquially speaking, although Lee acknowledges that creating this work throughout the pandemic may have introduced “a relationship to disease structure. The way the images evolve and proliferate – there’s almost a virus-like nature to that. There’s certainly an aggressiveness.

“But a lot of people see a lot of humor in the pieces, too, which is great. The unintended parallels that audiences find are interesting to me, and so is the cross-appeal the work has had.”

For Lee, the fact that those audiences comprise both gallerygoers and metalheads is evidence of cultural “cross-pollination,” he said. “We aren’t as different as we think.”