Idaho Arts Quarterly » Cover Artist

Memory Bank

Painter William Lewis takes inventory


In September of 2006, painter William Lewis, at age 39, will have his first solo exhibition. It will take place at J Crist Gallery in Boise, and it has been a long time coming. Although he has participated professionally in about a dozen group shows since 1991 (including several faculty exhibits at Boise State), Lewis has yet to have a major exhibition of his work on canvas and paper. In this age of instant celebrity, commercial hype and flash-in-the-pan art world careers, where it is not unknown for "hot" young talent just out of art school to score a solo shot, it is unusual for a hard working artist to have to wait this long. Yet, Lewis seems quite unperturbed by this. He may even feel the wait has been worth it. After all, Mark Rothko was over 40 when he had his first important one-man show in New York. Perhaps if Lewis had stayed in New York, where he received his BFA and MA in art, this important moment in his career would have arrived sooner. Then again, perhaps not.

Moving to Idaho--where the opportunities for visual artists are limited anyway--then proceeding to make paintings that challenge conservative notions of fine art, is not usually the route most conducive to achieving artistic renown and financial success. In any case, Lewis does not come across as someone in a big hurry for even local recognition. Thoughtful, even-tempered and decidedly low-key, Lewis is an artist who clearly sets his own pace and his decision to come to Boise was a conscious one made, in part, to escape the constraints that the demands of economic survival in New York placed on making art. Consequently, although the move to Idaho eliminated the need to hold down multiple jobs in order to fund studio time, gone, too, was the pressure to make a name for himself among the art cognoscenti.

Moving around to different parts of the country has been a substantial part of Lewis' life and no doubt has informed his artistic vision. The son of an Air Force pilot, Lewis was born in California, after which subsequent reassignments took the family to Michigan and Alabama. After his father left the Air Force and began flying for United Airlines, they lived in New Jersey and then North Canton, Ohio, where Lewis went to high school. Following graduation, rather than heading right to college, Lewis traveled with his brother in Europe for a year. Upon their return, Lewis entered the Parsons School of Design in New York City in 1985, later transferring to the Parsons School at the American College in Paris, France.

After completing his education in Paris, Lewis entered the BFA program at Hunter College in New York, hoping to study with the abstract painter Ray Parker, who taught at Hunter for more than 30 years. Unfortunately, Parker was in ill-health at the time, which forced his retirement in 1989, cutting short Lewis' time with the older artist. But Parker's influence is still recognizable in Lewis' free-spirited, improvisational approach to painting. In 1990, Lewis began his master's work at New York University, completing his MA in 1992.

During his last five years in New York, in addition to various other jobs, Lewis worked as a studio assistant for transplanted West Coast artist Arnold Mesches, assisting in the installation of exhibitions and the fabrication and preparation of materials and structures. Upon his arrival in Boise in 1997, Lewis took a position as an adjunct professor of art at Boise State, where he taught drawing and painting for four years. At the same time, beginning in 1998, he became an art instructor at West Middle School in Nampa, teaching junior high students painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics and sculpture. Characteristically, in 2000, Lewis opted out of the university career-track scene and became a full-time instructor at West Middle School where he teaches to this day. He seems very comfortable in this situation.

Tracing the evolution of Lewis' style of painting reveals a debt to both international and domestic influences, as well as an informed appreciation of art history. In a day when Picasso is rarely cited as an inspiration by younger artists, Lewis has immense respect for the Spaniard's innovations in pictorial visualization and acknowledges their impact on his own art. But this becomes more evident, I think, as Lewis' art progresses. Examples from his early period in New York demonstrate the pervasive pull of 1980s neo-expressionism, especially the technique and palette of contemporary German painters like George Baselitz, Marcus Lupertz and Jorg Immendorf. Increasingly by the mid-1990s, abstract and figurative pictograms entered Lewis' visual vocabulary, similar to the socially-charged, graphic imagery of Germans Sigmar Polke and A. R. Penck.

In addition, the plurality of post-modernism had great appeal for Lewis and he has embraced the era's use of diverse, often non-art materials. As early as 1987, Lewis was experimenting with an array of materials and mediums combined in single works, including collage, watercolor, ink, charcoal, pastel and substances like white-out, in order to achieve weightier surface effects and enhance the physical aspects of the work. This emphasis on physicality, along with the strong graphic quality of his images, has been a dominant characteristic of his art.

Yet there is a definite American flavor to Lewis' paintings. Roots in the art history and visual culture of this country lend his works their unique character. The fresh, honest naturalism with which Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins treated ordinary subjects after the dark, pretentious academicism that dominated American art in the mid-19th century has been an inspiration to Lewis in his own quest to express the mystery of the mundane. But the two Americans who have had the biggest impact on Lewis as an artist are Marsden Hartley and Philip Guston. Interestingly, both were quite successful as abstract painters and then turned their backs on abstraction to pursue representational art instead.

In his most innovative period (during World War I), Hartley combined a personalized cubist style with intense, German expressionist-like colors, building abstract structures out of emblematic patterns and insignia, or flat rectilinear shapes, all of which conveyed an emotional intensity. His later figurative and landscape work was a simplified, rough-hewn expressionism that was very much in step with the American "regionalist" trend so popular in the 1920s and '30s. Both phases of Hartley's oeuvre have, at one time or another, struck a chord in Lewis.

But it is Guston's influence on Lewis that is the most readily apparent. First, Guston's abstract expressionist technique was thoughtful and introspective, having none of the heroic flourishes of Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning or Franz Kline. His abstractions were more the work of a probing intellect, which is how I would describe Lewis' handling of the gestural application of pigment in his own canvases and how he builds up his forms, whether they turn out to be abstract or representational.

William Lewis in his studio. - BINGO BARNES
Then there is Guston's about-face in 1967, when he abandoned abstraction ("I got sick of all that purity!" he declared) for what seemed like an off-beat, countercultural, R. Crumb-inspired figurative art that thumbed its nose at late modernism. He made paintings of piles of worn out shoes and boots, or books with broken spines and bashed covers, as if recording a rummage through a yard sale. It is forlorn, anonymous objects like these, fragments of some lost narrative or forgotten life, that we find in Lewis' canvases as well, similarly orphaned from mainstream art tastes as well as isolated compositionally in the work. While Lewis never gets as political as Guston's hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, or as biting as Guston's treatments of Richard Nixon, he shares with his predecessor a subversive streak that often manifests itself in a clumsy physicality that is typically American. What most immediately comes to mind in this regard are Lewis' parodies of American triumphalism in his gouache paintings from 2002, done on classroom geographic maps depicting chapters of early American history. For example, with Gustonesque gusto, Lewis gives us menacing teeth-and-gum choppers grinning over chunks of territory in Claims of Nations and plenty of rope to hang ourselves in Twine, both of which walk the line between folk art and caricature. These pedagogical devices are re-enlisted as social commentary.

Where does Lewis' peculiar iconography come from? What mental and cultural junkyards does he mine for his subject matter? There is something about his imagery that suggests what philosopher Michel Foucault described as an "archeology of knowledge," a digging down through deposits of long forgotten systems, beliefs and obsolete technologies. By excavating distant and recent visual memories, Lewis' paintings seem to peel back the glossy surface layer of contemporary life to expose the compost of decaying intellectual matter engendering our current obsessions, inclinations and way of life.

Lewis has always been interested in obscure, antiquated objects and contraptions that trigger the imagination and activate what he calls "sense memory." Medieval and pre-modern alchemical, botanical, medical and metaphysical texts fascinate him. To him, they are windows to historic cultures in the way their illustrations mix fact and faith, science and magic, fusing the rational and the irrational in strange, allegorical forms. The searching that is often evident in such depictions is something that also characterizes Lewis' appropriations and inventions, and his works can be seen as catalogs of our evolving collective consciousness.

As a former denizen of New York City, Lewis is aware of the rewards of exploring the recesses of older urban centers. He talks about revealing in his art the strata of different cities inhabiting a superficially familiar one. For instance, his paintings recall those cluttered, musty Mom-and-Pop stationery or hardware stores whose dated inventories seem from another time, yet who inexplicably survive amidst corporate outlets. Coming out to Idaho only served to push him deeper into this realm. Remnants of weathered advertising images on abandoned signs and billboards in small towns and along rural roads made their way into his art. The distressed surfaces and eroded representations resonated with a desolate beauty for Lewis and broadened his vocabulary.

The impact of Lewis' new surroundings was evident in the body of work he exhibited in the fall of 2002 at the "Boise Bus Barn" event, when artists renting studio space in that empty city facility invited the public onto the premises for a viewing. Lewis' paintings, both large and small, were out in force, and this was Boise's first exposure to the full range of what he was doing. At the time it seemed a very uneven body of work, but in hindsight I attribute that judgment largely to my own unfamiliarity and the quirkiness of his vision. The large scale work was done on unstretched canvas with grommets by which to hang them lining the edge. Their surfaces were composites of oils, acrylics, flashe (vinyl matte color), powdered milk paint (which he kept refrigerated) and collaged paper, upon which he painted eccentric, graphic renderings of simple utensils or tools or body parts held in suspension as if they were old advertisements or signs, along with almost cartoonish organic abstractions. They had simple titles like Canned or Birth or Hammer. Some had wonderful "pentimento" elements--traces of earlier images showed through the underpainting--creating an intentional layered look and revealing Lewis' process of trial and error. It added to the sense of images faded by the elements, neglect or obsolescence. In these, the figure/ground relationship worked well, each reinforcing the demeanor of the other, which, in turn, enhanced the physical effect of the whole.

Lewis also had a number of colorful smaller works done in gouache on paper on view at that show. He continues to work out visual ideas or record forms of interest for later referral in this manner, but they can be artworks in their own right, too. Gouache is a water-based paint that was originally developed for commercial artists. Its colors are more intense and more opaque than regular watercolors. This fits Lewis' purposes very well, retaining the look of signage graphics, while allowing him to create works on paper with often livelier, more complex compositions than his canvases.

The "Bus Barn" studio arrangement did not last very long, and for the last several years, Lewis has been working out of a studio space he has created for himself in a rental unit off of Chinden Boulevard near the river. It's a fairly restricted space, but it has high ceilings. With some ingenuity and primitive mechanical rigging (a contrivance reminiscent of his subject matter), Lewis is able to work on several large canvases simultaneously while retaining easy access to some of his earlier work. Studies and completed works on paper in gouache and chalk pastel are everywhere--including spread on the floor--some of which serve as inspirations for larger projects.

Lewis' paintings are evolving, too, which is not surprising, as he makes a point of emphasizing that he never sticks to a consistent methodology or presentation format. This is one reason his art always looks so fresh. While he still paints on unstretched canvas, he prefers now to exhibit the finished work on stretcher bars. He is working on a monumental scale these days, much larger than before, and several of the works that will be in his September show covered the walls of his studio. While I will reserve critical comments on these until I see them stretched and in the gallery space, I will say his art has become more sophisticated. Rather than the composite mediums of yesteryear, Lewis' new canvases are strictly oil paintings. In works like Eyes and Ears and Green Rag, he has returned with confidence to a richer palette using vivid, expressionistic colors after a considerably more restrained period several years ago. And while on one hand I miss the pentimento effects I admired in 2002, in paintings like Green Rag and Atomizer, Lewis has retained a more measured and ambiguous sense of past versus present that in the end is more compelling.

It is interesting to watch Lewis work on a new painting, as I recently had occasion to do. After the ground and underpainting was laid down, he took to vigorously applying pigment with a large rounded house painting brush, building a form out of gestural strokes that came together quite fast. While Lewis has no set method or approach, he admitted to often starting this way, acting on an impulse suggested by an a figurative element in a pastel sketch, charging off, as he put it, like some sort of "action painter" (which apparently is in his blood). With only a little more caution, he began to give the form definition with his characteristic black hatch marks and outline strokes that resemble calligraphy. He says he catches himself getting carried away like this and backs off, as he much prefers to "make a well-considered line." Lewis somewhat resignedly added that he often finds that his "self-imposed limitations sometimes get lost in a blizzard of possibilities." I thought he was doing just fine.

In one of our discussions about his art, Lewis mentioned how intriguing he had always found small Byzantine paintings and medieval illuminated manuscripts, both for their elaborate decorativeness and their surreal yet tightly controlled imagery that managed to elicit emotional responses. His comments brought to mind the hefty book of collages, constructions and gouache sketches he put together, which serves both as a source book and a work in its own right, and which he displayed at the BOSCO opening at Boise Art Museum in 2004. With all its patterns and varying surfaces and textures, it had a precious quality and strangeness. By isolating parts and objects in his larger compositions, Lewis strives to infuse his work with that sense of the strange and the surreal that connects with something inside us, much like art did hundreds of years ago. It explains, in part, the holding power that so many of his paintings have.