Friday, April 15, 2011

Betty Cuningham Gallery 541 West 25st. John Lees, through May 14th

Jonn Lees at the Betty Cuningham Gallery

John Lees is an artist I'm very familiar with. I know not just his work, but him personally. He was my adviser in art school, and he was such a passionate and kind hearted person that I've made a point of seeing every show of his I hear about. One of the things he's most known for is the amount of time he spends painting and repainting an image. There are, in fact paintings in this show that were started in the 70's. Are they finished now? How can he tell? The paint is very thick and in some places almost sculptural. The pallet is that of Rembrandt, but the surface is more like Albert Pinkham Ryder. The canvas is very worn and beaten up. He's always worked very intuitively, and in certain cases canvases have been literally cut from their stretcher bars, and glued onto a larger canvases, so that Lees could transform them into a larger composition. This is just one of the qualities that make his work extremely uncommercial.
The subject matter is always both humble, and monolithic. There are several images of a bathtub in the show, as well as a road, a farm house, a man in a chair. These are great personal icons to Lees, but he doesn't seem to feel the need to explain them to his audience. There is very little narrative involved in these paintings. There is also very little detail, in spite of the constant reworking. In fact, a lot of the paint application seems to be more about developing the physical presents of the painting than rendering the image. Lees should probably be best thought of as a romantic modernist. He treats the physical object as a fossil. It's lived a life, and had a history. One that it's shared with him.
To tell you the truth, the thick paint and battered surfaces of the paintings that were painted in a year or two don't seem that different from the ones that took 40 years to finish. At least they don't seem noticeably different to me. They probably do to Lees though, who is privy to the amount and quality of information buried under their surfaces. From my experience Lees is not just a romantic. He's kind of a sentimentalist. I think his unwillingness to finish a painting is a reflection of this sentimentality. He spends many years struggling with his paintings, and he doesn't want to let them go. For him it's probably like ending a relationship, or watching your children leave home.

1 comment:

  1. I wanted to see this show. I like your review and analysis. It is seemed insightful. I don't know why my previous post did not take.