Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pedagogical Vertigo: The Paintings and Drawings of Stanley Lewis

Tim Campbell

I have not yet met Stanley Lewis, but I felt compelled to write about the work in his retrospective at the Katzen Arts Center because I have recently become aware of his presence hiding behind my education as a painter. While viewing the show, I began to feel as if I had always been receiving his teachings second-hand, via professors who had worked with him or had been taught by him in the past. Mr. Lewis’s presence has been felt at the Art Institute of Chicago, Kansas City Art Institute, Yale, Boston University, the New York Studio School, and American University, among others; he has zigzagged across many of the MFA and BFA programs between Chicago and New York.

My first exposure to Lewis’s work was as an undergraduate; one of his pencil drawings was featured in a show of works on paper at my college art gallery. The same drawing that introduced me to Lewis as an undergrad is featured in his current retrospective. As I viewed and reviewed it last week, I experienced a vivid flood of memories of the exact same chunks of paper and glue, the exact same slashes into the flesh of the parchment block, the exact same cords and tendons of graphite which form such neurotic networks of branches and bramble. These drawings have a very real way of staying in your memory, because they reproduce with passionate detail the parts of landscape that art usually ignores. Lewis is incredibly capable when it comes to bringing life to his work; his edgy lines not only represent the trees he is so engaged in picturing, they become palpable, physical presences that tremble and dance before the viewer.

Much like the paintings of Pollock, this work has a physical strength to it. Physicality of material and the physical manifestation of process are clearly primary concerns for Lewis while he is painting. Unlike Pollock, however, Lewis does not erase every pictorial trace of inspiration, context, or source. He loves light-filled landscapes (there were very few cloudy, stormy or nocturnal pictures), and he is very serious about maintaining a commitment to what can be reproduced from observation. This obsession brings his work close to Giacometti’s portrait paintings. And like Giacometti, the point of these paintings seems to be for the viewer to watch Lewis trying to get it right, trying to capture what he sees in paint. It’s about the process of finding a balance between expressive mark and pictorial responsibility.

While made with incredible skill, pure craft cannot be the only goal of the work because Lewis deliberately staples fresh canvas into his paintings instead of sewing or pasting new portions, which would offer a smoother and less dramatic shift in surface. In addition, he deliberately shows the build-up of obscene amounts of paint instead of scraping the canvas down, washing it, and reworking it. The build-up of paint and the staples have another function, as well: they make the paintings more concerned with honesty than with beauty. Lewis wants to show us how he gets to a finished painting; he doesn’t want to hide his process behind a nice finish or a nice view. This honesty does not allow for a tremendous amount of variety in the paintings, but it is an honesty that I respect.

Sometimes, the paintings do not hold my interest because of the subject matter. The works show a surprising silence when it comes to commenting on the subjects they depict. The places that Lewis shows us are everyday corner stores, chain link fences, backyards and commonplace fields. They are familiar; they do not offer any surprising events buried within this familiarity, nor are they transferred into the world of metaphor or allegory. Since so much attention is spent upon the medium of paint and the process of picture-making, it is impossible to imagine these locations without the presence of Mr. Lewis. His intensity and psyche are necessary components to this work, and therefore he enters into the content.

Overall, the show displays the career of an intense artist obsessed with understanding the landscapes that he finds himself in. The paintings work best when they erupt into energetic fields of mark that compete with the spatial illusions of landscape, and the drawings come across as the stronger works because of how Lewis amazingly maps every single branch of whatever tree he is looking at. The locations found in the paintings are portrayed as they are seen by the artist; that is, as visual information for a painting. The role of these locations, or their greater importance, is left up to the viewer.

If you are interested in seeing the work of a masterful picture-maker whose main concern is the construction of paintings, then this show will be a treat for its spectacular intensity and unusual techniques. If not, then the show might prove to be uninteresting because of the commonplace qualities of Lewis’s chosen vistas. Either way, this retrospective shows the dedication and achievements of a highly unusual and unique landscape artist.

Which recently exhibited artist has been most influential on your work?
Matthew Barney
Jasper Johns
Joseph Cornell
Stanley Lewis
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