20 East 79th Street, New York, NY 10021, Telephone
September 8 to Octobrt 2, 2004
We have a convenient shorthand phrase for the making of meaningful marks on canvas: “the Painting Process.” But it isn’t really a single process, nor even a finite one. For representational painters the challenge has always been two-fold, at least; they must first come to grips with their own visual experience, and then find a way of rendering an equivalent in paint. (Cézanne showed just how compelling this restless dichotomy of observation and reconstitution could be, but in fact this struggle is as old as painting itself.) The “process” actually continues even after brushes are laid down, because the reconstituting, in circular fashion, shows the eye how to see.
Of course this isn’t the kind of process every artist has in mind today. Many pursue a conceptual engagement with symbols and statements, rather than the sheer variety of impetus of color and line. This wouldn’t necessarily be a loss, except that fewer painters, abstract and representational alike, seem inclined to extract from visual experience its full potential.
But there still are painters who look long and deep. An exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly features the landscape paintings of two such artists, Stanley Lewis and Gregory Botts. The pairing is intriguing. Both show how even the tradition-laden genre of landscape can be renewed through the process of seeing, but they do this through entirely different means.
Now in his early 60s, Lewis has had for many years a following of admirers among colleagues and students. His four medium-sized and two tiny paintings here have the standard subjects and rectangular format of landscape, but they are anything but tame. His canvases are so matted with strokes of thick paint that they seem almost to swell from their supports. Deep, irregular troughs cut through his surfaces, the result of repeated cutting off and repositioning of entire sections of paintings. The images themselves are crisscrossed by careening impulses; streaming horizon lines–always angled or curved–divide these worlds into forms surging above and below, with big foreground wedges sectioned off by thrusting fences and paths.
What is so remarkable about the images is their final tautness of design. Despite the agitated attack, each element seems minutely considered, its visual weight and location measured against the accumulating whole. The drawing of forms sometimes gives them an almost hallucinogenic speed, but oddly enough this only seems to confirm the fidelity to optical experience. One feels almost as if one’s eyeball were planted at the center of his canvases: as the tree in “Matt Farnum’s Farm, Chautauqua, NY” soars from the horizon, it spreads above and over our viewpoint as it makes its ragged way to the edge of the canvas-here, identical with the limits of our perceptions.
Lewis’ muted colors, too, seem designed not to charm but to do pictorial justice. When his tilting, predominantly khaki-green planes set up the punctuations of more intense notes of red and yellow, the relationships have the ring of observed truth. An up-close pickup truck hogs the entire front corner of “Farnum’s Farm,” but the unexpected delicacy of its coloration, faithful to the weather and hour of a particular day, turns it into a subdued, hulking bulwark against the tide of streaming grass. By contrast a house perched distantly on the horizon, silhouetted by hard contrasts of sky, stares starkly back at us from far behind those same layered greens. The effect is of intensely cohesive impressions-of snapshots finding their gravity, if you will.
At points the paintings suggest an artist on the brink of perceptual saturation-Lewis’ eye seems unable to pass up any event, including the truck’s Chevy insignia–but they arrive finally at a kind of quivering, temporary equilibrium through sheer focus of intent. It’s as if Lewis “wanted to make Expressionism into something as permanent as the art in museums”, to paraphrase Cézanne’s self-proclaimed goal for Impressionism. Despite this (or perhaps, because of it), one suspects that Lewis would happily pull any of these canvases off the wall and start hacking again. His goal appears to be not a fixed perfection but an unboundable synthesis of seeing and making. It’s hard to think of another painter who so completely shuns preconceptions about traditional painting while reaffirming its most interesting possibilities. These days it’s a rare virtuosity: one caring nothing for itself.
The paintings of fifty-two year-old Gregory Botts, with their agile surfaces and crisply fragmented designs, draw upon perceptions in an entirely different way. Where Lewis’ obsessively rehashes, Botts’ finesses, encompassing both sweeping forms and discursive details with a supple bravura. Appropriating the elegant paradoxes of Cubism, his images flirt with stylistic adventurism, but more than most of his contemporaries he’s saved by a sure grip on formal tensions–in his case, too, arising out of keen observation. Botts gets loads of mileage out of economical tactics. In a section of “Western Sky #2,” the largest of his three paintings here, patches of luminous ochre, evanescent blue, and a spacious, warm off-white are all it takes to produce tangible fact: the weight of a cloud in a late afternoon sky. Silhouetting stylized sunflowers, the sky is in turn framed by a surround of grayed, more loosely brushed shapes that turn out on closer inspection to be a panoramic version of the same sky and flowers: a playful gambit of simultaneous/alternate views.
Where Botts’ color animates the sequences, references to Cubism or Pop seem irrelevant-who cares what an artist borrows if he makes it authentically his own? Botts’ constructions generally convince, although two heavy ultramarine bars running vertically across “Western Sky,” don’t help; they mechanistically repeat other blue elements rather than urging rhythms to the next degree, and one can’t help wondering wistfully what Juan Gris might have done.
But “Spring Vanishes Scraps of Winter” has no such shortcomings; here, the surround of neutral-colored, abstracted forms becomes the tense, measured foil for another glimpsed landscape-this one, too, made varied, rich, and spacious by a few well-chosen hues and shapes. Within, the ease of the movement from huge hovering petals to a tiny bit of distant shoreline is striking. Neatly punctuating the frame of grays are cryptic details-an odd rectangular scrap marked with a squiggle (perhaps the artist’s initial), a small white diamond shining from behind several curving, overlapping planes–that expand and intensify the scale of the rhythms. One sees a lot of cartoony images and splashy, doily-like abstractions in cutting-edge galleries, but they rarely achieve this weight of composition. This makes Botts’ contributions especially welcome; he shows that a free-wheeling, self-conscious exploitation of sources-now nature, now history, now his own in-progress facsimile of nature-can indeed result in meaningful painting.
Facing each other across the walls at Salander, the paintings of Lewis and Botts almost suggest Earnestness regarding Facility. Neither quality by itself, though, would make for memorable painting. The catalyst is the intensity of perception and reformulation in the language of paint, and it’s this reformulation that ultimately makes an image ‘real,’ whether it’s representational, abstract, or somewhere in-between. These two painters at Salander show that painting is indeed still something of a hallowed calling–that is, it’s a major art form, its learning curve is steep, and dedication to it leads to intense, idiosyncratic results.print