Friday, February 23, 2007

Stanley Lewis, A Retrospective

reviewed by Lauren Rice
American University Museum at the Katzen

If artist Stanley Lewis is anything like his work then he is indeed charismatic, eccentric, passionate, rigidly energetic and obsessive. I have heard for years about Lewis' personality and his work through professors and fellow students, however his current retrospective at the Katzen Art Center has given me my first opportunity to view his work for myself. At first glance, the paintings steal the show, illuminating the gallery with their sugary palette. However, although I am intrigued by Lewis' paintings, it is his drawings that I find extraordinary.

Stanley Lewis' drawings are unlike anything I have ever seen. Lewis' collaged elements echo the nervous energy of Giacometti's lines. If he had not succumbed to so many collaged pieces the drawings would be nothing grand, but their fantastic obssessiveness puts them into a superior category. His obsessively patched paper reiterates his packed compositions that have been ripped apart, scratched out and built back into until they become tactile, sculptural things. Backyard trees become jungles and kitchen interiors become hazardous. There is a violent beauty in his process, destructive and constructive simultaneously. His decision to often leave obvious holes in the paper as touches of light or his choice to show his work unframed is refreshingly confrontational. Lewis has found a way not to feel precious about his marks or his paper. It is just paper, after all. Collage allows him to change anything at all and adds to the overwhelming experience of his world.

The drawings and the paintings in the retrospective begin to speak of movement, fragmented memory and order in chaos. Things in the world are constantly moving and Lewis moves with them, cutting out or building on paper when necessary. One gets the sense that he is searching for truth but knows he will never find it. In fact, the errors and Lewis' search for perfection creates a truth bigger then the frenzy of trying to render without flaw. The collage creates a history, as Bill Willis said, "an archeological dig in reverse."

I like Lewis' paintings for the same reason I like his drawings, for their sculptural quality and Lewis' additive eagerness to change the shape of the canvas if truth or the need for a more interesting composition requires. For some reason, however, the construction of the paintings becomes the focus, as opposed to what is painted on the construction. (Confession: I must admit that this comes from a conversation with someone else. It wasn't my idea first. But I have thought about it seriously and do believe it to be true.) The construction is what is eye-catching and different instead of the way that they are painted. This is similar to the work of Frank Stella and Elizabeth Murray: I find their work more interesting without the theatrical construction of the canvas. In fact, I feel that it takes away from the work as a whole and the artist's excitement of creating space on a two-dimensional surface. Furthermore, although Lewis' colors often glow with glossy mediums, I miss the thin areas of the drawings that perfectly contrasted to the heavy buildup of paper in other areas. There seemed to be less thinness/thickness contrast in the paintings than the drawings and for this I find them less satisfying. However, I still find him a painter to be reckoned with. The evidence of his work ethic alone is extraordinary and I love that he does not automatically accept the boundaries of the canvas as the boundaries of the painting. There exists a passion in his work that is rarely seen.

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