Picture a forklift, dwarfed by its own cloud of exhaust.
One of many intricate details in an artwork titled “Lifting Clouds,” the forklift symbolizes global trade, but the pollution it is causing is only half the story. The exhaust is made up of billows of delicate, lacy peony flowers — making the piece a pretty picture.
It was created by Bovey Lee, whose work is on view in a show called “Conundrums” at Rena Bransten Gallery. Born in Hong Kong, educated in Berkeley and now working in Philadelphia, Lee pays homage to the traditional art of Chinese paper cutting, which dates back to the sixth century.
When Lee takes an X-Acto knife to a sheet of rice paper, she carves both images from traditional Chinese decorative art and modern symbols — forklifts, barges, consumer goods and more. As artisans did centuries ago, she mixes in references to everyday life.
For a person raised and educated in two fast-changing cultures, that adds up to a lot of references, from ancient temples and sleek skyscrapers of historic and modern China to mundane present-day objects, such as office chairs.
Lee seamlessly mixes the beautiful, the decorative and the ominous, packing so many cultural and historical symbols into a single piece, they’re almost a barrage. Her mushroom clouds and tsunamis look fine next to serene landscapes and tiny cartoonlike flourishes.
She observes recent history and current events, never sugar-coating or shirking from uncomfortable topics, but not making judgments, either. Her goal is to chronicle what she sees from her own vantage point rather than suggest a conclusion for viewers.
“I try to make people think about consequences,” Lee says by phone from her Philadelphia studio, where she is getting ready to ship work to Art Basel in Hong Kong. (The annual art fair based in Switzerland begins a companion event in Hong Kong in May.)
She continues: “I want people to think, ‘What does that really mean?’ but I don’t want to become this preacher-type. I think it works better to open up the image for people to respond to their own way.
“I wanted to pair something beautiful and something man-made. The forklift symbolized to me whatever we do to nature, nature has the ability to remain beautiful.”