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William Lewis' Rapid Oxidation Ignites Enso Artspace

A streak of romanticism runs through this non-member exhibit


Since its inception, Enso Artspace has focused on exhibiting the art of its members in its small but distinctive warehouse in Garden City. However, Enso's mission is a broader one, stipulating that it "seeks to engage and invigorate the arts community by hosting regular exhibitions and events."

With funding from a Boise Weekly Cover Auction grant, Enso is now showing its first non-member exhibit, William Lewis' Rapid Oxidation.

Enso co-founder Cate Brigden called Lewis a prolific artist whose art on canvas and paper is bold and thoughtful, and the implications of which are often unexpected.

"We knew it would make for a strong show," Brigden said.

The point is well taken. Lewis is not only a contemporary artist of originality and skill, but an intellectual historian whose subject matter and technique reveal a deep interest in human thought and its relation to the natural world. From pre-modern illustrations combining science and faith to degraded roadside remnants of small town billboards and hardscrabble farm implements, Lewis finds beauty in commonplace ingenuity, imagination and design. His renderings of manufactured artifacts from 19th and early 20th century America are nostalgic, yet refreshingly alive and personable.

In 2008, Lewis turned to portraying lone figures and objects in nature in simple compositions that convey a psychology of contemplation and isolation. This increasingly prominent streak of romanticism in Lewis' art comprises single figures in nature and solitary rock formations with hidden meanings, both of which echo German artist Caspar David Friedrich's early 19th century romantic portrayals of man's spiritual communion with nature. In these, Lewis introduced his motif of the rudimentary campfire, a simple ring of stones encircling either a fire yet to be set or just dying embers.

It's tempting to see the Enso exhibit as a sequel to Burn Pile, Lewis' 2010 show at Northwest Nazarene University. Whereas the latter depicted the various stages of what can be described as a family cleansing ritual--in which the debris of daily rural life is pushed together and burned--Lewis' large gouaches in Rapid Oxidation seem spontaneous and out of control like a force of nature.

These pieces are reminiscent of William Turner's famous "Burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1835," another icon of romanticism.

In oil on canvas and watercolor and gouache on paper, Lewis portrays various incarnations of fire in the wild, including the soaring vertical "Large Fire," which shoots huge flames into the night sky, and the broad "Large Fire 2," which generates intense heat and light against a crisscross composition of blackened wood, like a Franz Kline painting on fire. Even small, abstract gouaches like "Plasma" give the impression of overheated combustion, while "Bonfire 2" evokes a burning world in free fall.

The most haunting images in the exhibit are Lewis' dead or dying campfires--some, like "Smith's Ferry Fire Ring," glow with a few remaining embers, and others are completely expired. Oil paintings like "Dead Out" have a scorched earthiness to them that recall, in their way, the Wehrmacht-tortured landscapes of German painter Anselm Kiefer.

The paintings are studies in black and dark grays, their night shadows creep across the encircling stones, obscuring the charred remnants, letting in the cold and dark. These works stand as chilling metaphors for being alone in the wild.

The theme of self-imposed solitude is considered another way in Rapid Oxidation. The title can also be interpreted as "fire of the mind," as Lewis puts it, referring to the spiritual and intellectual ferment of the mid-19th century characterized by utopian communities, ideological societies and essayists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (plus the dark romanticism of writers like Edgar Allan Poe) and the trajectories they created for the future.

To make his point, Lewis portrays two cabins belonging to a pair of famous nonconformists, who took to living in the woods for solace and solitude. His large oil on canvas, "Thoreau's Cabin (Replica)," depicts the shanty Thoreau built in 1845 beside Walden Pond to pen his American classic.

In a contemporary extension of this nonconformist ideal, the other cabin belongs to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who hid out for years, stewing in his extremist environmental ideas and planning lethal attacks. A diptych called "Kaczynski's Cabin (Two Views)" depicts his windowless structure both on site and in FBI custody.

On the gallery floor before it, a porcelain sculpture of a burned-out campfire sits as a mute witness to such craziness.