Wednesday, November 11, 2015

John Lees at Betty Cuningham Gallery

By Charles Kessler

I've known John for at least forty years, but I don't love his art just because we're friends. As with Charles Garabedian, I loved John's art, so I made it a point to get to know him, then we became friends.

An exhibition of his relatively recent paintings and drawings can be seen at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, 15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side (through November 28th). I say "relatively recent" because John will work on a painting or drawing for years, decades sometimes – Man Sitting in an Armchair, for example, is dated 2008–2015.
Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015, oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches.
He builds up the paint, scrapes it off, sands it down, and works into it again and again, piling up the paint so much that it becomes a palpable physical presence. The result is a crusty, fragmented image embedded in the rough, craggy paint surface. 
Side view of Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015.
Memory is frequently the subject of John's art, or, more accurately, he paints the experience of remembering. Man Sitting in an Armchair, for example, is a memory of his father; and, like a memory, the images are fleeting and hazy, slowly coalescing to reveal more and more detail the longer you stay with it.
Detail of the lower left of Man Sitting in an Armchair, 2008-2015.
Lees's drawings are particularly remarkable because one doesn't expect this much physicality in a drawing. 
In the Park/Early Morning, 2009-15, graphite, ink on paper, 11 x 9 ⅛ inches.
His drawings are worked and re-worked, erased until threadbare, patched and worked again. And like the paintings, the drawings are physically part of the paper the way the images in his paintings are physically part of the paint.

You can see this better in this photo of a drawing from an earlier exhibition:
 River Landscape (For Bas Jan Ader), 2003; 2005-2007; 2009, ink, conte, sanguine, chalk and gouache on paper, 25 3/4 x 43 1/2 inches.
John is a good old-fashioned painter's painter, and very much a man of the 1930s and 40s, even though he wasn't even born until 1943. He enthusiastically talks about books, music, movies, and other things that happened then as if they were yesterday. So it's not surprising that the show contains several drawings and paintings with the words "42nd Street," referring to the 1933 movie directed by Lloyd Bacon.
42nd Streeet (Tesserae), 2015, oil on canvas, 24 x 32inches.
Behind the words "42nd Street," or, more accurately, superimposed on a grid embedded into the words, is dialogue from the movie in which an old actress gives over her starring role to a young actress. The painting encapsulates the movie and these words as if it's the physical embodiment of them.
Detail: 42nd Streeet (Tesserae), 2015.
This is a fabulous show – one of the rare exhibitions of art that evokes meaning in a powerfully visceral way.

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