Crude Beauty and Wordsworthian Grandeur
by Patrick Neal on October 20, 2014
The artist Stanley Lewis draws and paints the landscapes closest to him, places where he works, teaches, and travels like nearby lakes and roadsides in Chautauqua, New York, or his backyard and studio window views in Leeds, Massachusetts. His compositions, currently on view at Betty Cuningham Gallery, have a surprising asymmetry, often two different subjects come in from the left and right or top and bottom; a large tree facing the side of a house, or neighborhood streets abutting a grassy lawn. The scenes are not quite centered and have a provisional quality befitting lonely, unnoticed places. From these commonplace sites which could be easily overlooked, Lewis is sensitive to finding the remarkable in the everyday.
Lewis’s work has an astounding physicality in the manner of such British landscape painters as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. He heavily reworks the surfaces of oil paintings and pencil and ink drawings as he delineates an object’s close-up specificity or grounded sense of place. A work’s surface roils with the accretion of years worth of heavy and thin paint or dense tonality. But Lewis goes even further than just wiping away paint or erasing marks to physically cutting away canvas and paper so as to reorder the actual working support. He will move or add strips of canvas sections to his paintings then paste, staple or nail these swatches to an underlying piece of cardboard or canvas board.
In the monumental drawing “Hemlock Trees Seen From Upstairs Window in the Snow” (2007–14), Lewis’s digs and tears with his pencil and scrubs through the front of the paper with his eraser. He revises by ripping away paper or cutting out sections and repairs holes in the surface by patching paper swatches to the backside. In lieu of pentiments the work has incisions and excisions, the paper becoming so stratified into layers as to resemble a sculptural relief. The drawing of a massive tree in the snow with every branch meticulously transcribed is spectacular — a primordial fusion of man and nature with a Wordsworthian grandeur.
The convolutions of inspiration and labor that mark Lewis’s working methods results in a sort of ugly beauty. Choppy tree branches, grassy weeds, and figures materialize as the compositions are wrested out of marks that are awkwardly urgent, never ornamental which makes them feel all the more real. The paintings are as much about Lewis’s sensibility and humanity as he captures a place and moment in time. The more you stand in front of one, the more a painting loses its two-dimensionality and the “thingness” asserts itself, a record of Lewis’s struggle to get things right. Lewis takes in a scene piece by piece from different perspectives, often panoramic with a lot of second guessing. The artist’s doubt and facture add up to a convincing sense of place with the character of a thing like a boat or truck intact.
Walking through the exhibition, one is reminded of how paintings are a series of relationships: speed versus precision, negative and positive space, static versus temporal, specific to general, value or color. And one keeps registering the presence of negative space and contour as ordering devices. Lewis is looking as much at these abstract currents as he is at the familiar anchors of domesticity like a road or a porch.
Lewis lays down patches of paint that both mold and flatten, while resembling the textured patterning of Intimist artists, like Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. In “Backyard Jeykll Island, GA” (2014), ephemeral elements like grey, elongated shadows on the lawn merge with a steely blue gaggle of lawn chairs. A ramble of crooked trees with gnarled branches hang over a neighborhood yard, the particularity of each shrub or shack etched out by the surrounding blue sky, or fence latticing. Some areas are rendered with gestural speed, others highly congealed or minutely specific all adding up to a believable, peculiar place. The palettes are grounded by earth tones but all over there are flourishes of softer, pale blues and greens, lilac and rose.
Lines criss-cross through Lewis’s compositions in the form of wire gates, fencing, bricks, jagged branches, tangles of weeds or, most notably, electrical wires racing overhead. As Lewis takes in discrete sections bit by bit, these drawn lines coupled with the incised or excised cuts to the canvas read as containers of activity. The cuts and contours impose structure reigning in the wilder, chaotic, and speedy swathes of paint and remind one a bit of the energetic, gestural slashes in Auerbach’s portraits or street scenes. Objects are observed, askew, in their proper place even as we get a sense of how something may have moved or been disrupted, and this adds up to a believable sense of elapsed time.
There’s a crazy, urgent energy to the creative process that extends to the physical supports; as if Lewis grabs what is ever at hand before the clarity of the vision departs. Many of the finished pieces have odd, irregular perimeters that are finally fastened to a backing with buckling, sutured or pocked bits, the warts and all on view. In Cuningham’s upstairs gallery, there are a series of winter scenes viewed through a kitchen window that remind one of Bonnard’s interiors. Rendered in ink on paper the window pane bulges with a fish-eye view balancing the separation between outside and inside. Lewis has had the inspired idea to work with a black ballpoint pen, a great idea for quick, graphic accumulations of sensations.
The notion of a picture plane with a series of interrelated events, each uniquely considered had me thinking of another underrated artist who invigorated landscape painting, the late Gretna Campbell. Both she and Lewis are known as painter’s painters with well established reputations as influential teachers. On the days I visited Lewis’s show the artist himself was present holding court, meeting and greeting admirers and former students. Both joining Cuningham’s stable of artists and being included in the recent See it Loud exhibition at the National Academy have helped to raise Lewis’s profile and one wonders if this newfound visibility will draw a larger audience for his work. Certainly one can see traces of Lewis’s innovations in artists as diverse as Ellen Altfest, Marc Connor, and George Shaw, a younger generation of painters who are also pushing the boundaries of landscape painting.
Stanley Lewis continues at Betty Cuningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 25.