Is Having an 'Eye' for Art a Thing of the Past?

A few years ago I was standing in a Malibu furniture store looking at coffee tables when I heard another shopper whisper excitedly to a friend:

"Hey, isn't that Bruce Willis? He looks just like he does in the movies... but maybe just a bit shorter."

I can confirm: it was Bruce Willis, and that was one hell of a nice Ferrari he was driving. He didn't look short to me, but I digress.

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The author looks over John Currin's Reclining Nude: Photo by Matthew Couper
 
While viewing the recent John Currin exhibition last month at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, I found myself saying some rather similar things to my friends Matthew Couper and Jo Russ, who were touring the show with me. Currin's paintings were already well known to me, but only in the form of photos in magazines and jpeg images seen on the net, and I assessed them just the way that the woman in Malibu had assessed Bruce Willis:

"They are a bit more painterly when seen in person," I told Matthew, "and the canvas is a bit rougher than I expected."

Of course, considered in the context of today's media-driven art market, these observations are inconsequential. Everything in the show was already sold -- for $2 million plus each, or so I am told -- and Currin's reputation as an art world star is well established. The feeling I had looking over Currin's work was that the paintings themselves were celebrities, glamorized by the fame of the artist who made them and their high market values. That isn't an original idea: I think it was Robert Hughes who more than 30 years ago said something along the lines that "Paintings are now celebrities and museums are their limousines."

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Selfie Takers in the Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Becca Burns
 
Hughes was prescient in his observation and the recent phenomenon of museum selfies drives his point home very nicely. Being in the presence of a famous painting seems to be replacing -- especially for younger art viewers -- the experience of closely inspecting works of art. If you are interested in scrutinizing the surfaces of works of art slowly and scrupulously you are a connoisseur or possibly an artist with a kind of professional vested interest in a given painting's construction.

A case in point: when a number of my artist friends visited Kehinde Wiley's exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum recently, they had a lot to say on Facebook about how Wiley's paintings looked to the naked eye. There was quite a bit said about what Wiley's assistants in China had painted (the patterned backgrounds) and what he had painted himself (the faces) and also some comments about the fact that Wiley's technique was gradually becoming more confident.

I enjoyed hearing their first person observations, but also realized that they were having a similar experience to the one I had at the Currin show. Wiley has become famous because of the social messages of his artwork, especially his bold imagery of African-American men presented in a context largely borrowed from the grand traditions of European portraiture. What I and my other "painting geek" friends observe about his work in person isn't going to affect his career trajectory at this point. Like Currin, Wiley has created a body of work that transmits its messages well in magazines and on the net, and that aspect of his work is very potent -- and possibly essential -- at this moment in time.

In a media society the reputations of painters are made in magazines and on the web. Seeing surfaces in person is a luxury and an afterthought. A recent survey indicates that over 50 percent of contemporary art collectors have now purchased art on Instagram. There is clearly growing confidence among collectors that digital images can tell you enough about a work of art to spend big bucks. When the crate arrives, they can look over their purchases the way I looked over John Currin's paintings on the gallery wall, and make a few discerning comments if they are so inclined.

If you have an "eye for art" and a keen interest in inspecting the surface of works of art, both out of curiosity and a quest for deeper meaning, your abilities are linked to an increasingly outdated notion of connoisseurship. Having an "ear" for art -- which means that you pay attention to what people are saying about what is hot on the market -- is now the best way keep up with the trends. Maybe all of this has something to do with why art critics, who have been traditionally been relied upon to carefully scrutinize works of art and make critical pronouncements, seem increasingly impotent and irrelevant. When the editors of Hyperallergic suggested at the end of year that art critics might as well be replaced by Instagram, they made a very funny and rather relevant point.

When I can manage to pry myself away from my laptop and make the grueling drive into the city I always make time to see art in person. That said, I'm increasingly realizing that looking at art on the web is the only way I can really keep abreast of what is happening in my field. I'm still dedicated to the idea of connoisseurship, even in an age when visual ideas transmitted with immediacy are in the forefront. It's still great to visit museums and take things in slowly, inspecting the surfaces.

In L.A. there is also the chance I will see some celebrities, as they seem to frequent art museums. One of my students returned from a field trip recently and told me that she saw Tom Hanks at the Huntington. She said he looked just like he does in the movies, but a bit older now.

Carl Dobsky: 'Ship of Fools' at John Pence Gallery

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Carl Dobsky, Ship Of Fools, Oil on Canvas, 72 x 108 inches, 2014 - 2015

Carl Dobsky, a realist artist who is also the proprietor of the Los Angeles based Safehouse Atelier, is currently showing his recent six-by-nine-foot canvas Ship of Fools at John Pence Gallery. The painting takes up an entire wall in Pence's Gallery Three, and is accompanied by eight preparatory studies of the painting's characters.

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Carl Dobsky: Photo by Sadie Jernigan Valeri

John Seed Interviews Carl Dobsky

JS: Carl, how did you come to choose this image?

CD: The theme for the work has been around for a long time, but kind of comes into it's own in the 15th and 16th centuries with works by the likes of Hieronymous Bosch and others. It usually depicts a boat without a pilot filled with deranged or people who are kind of oblivious to their situation. In some cases, it has been used as social commentary.

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Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: In your version, is there social commentary involved?

CD: I wanted to take these elements, but give the theme a personal interpretation. For starters, I didn't want to make it into a social commentary where the viewer or myself was some how looking at it from a privileged point of view where we can pass judgment on the people in the boat. In fact, I wanted they viewer to sympathize with their plight. So, instead of making each person an archetype of a particular social class, I tried to keep them all on the same level, or rather, belonging to no social class in particular.

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Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: Tell me about how you constructed and organized the image.

CD: To set the stage for their dilemma, I wanted to show them in a situation where they were caught between an ideal vision and a practical situation. In this case, the practical situation is obvious enough; they're about to wash up into the rocks if they can't take care of matters at hand. To show the vision of the ideal, I chose the symbol of the butterfly for it's delicate and fragile beauty.

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Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: Yes, the butterflies add something unexpected...

CD: The thought to use butterflies came to me after reading about Chuang Tzu's dream where his identity becomes interchangeable with the butterfly. In a similar way we often identify ourselves by our ideals or dreams. It also has the connotation of daydreaming from the expression "chasing butterflies" where one is chasing something that aimlessly flutters about but cannot catch it and is always out of reach.

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Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: How did you orchestrate the emotions of the characters?

CD: The boat taking on water and approaching the rocks is perhaps a bit too obvious of a symbol, but I suppose sometimes obvious is the way to go. Between these two, the butterflies and the rocks, these people are all stuck on a boat and their fates are tied together whether they realize it or not. But instead of passing judgement on these fellows I wanted to focus on a range of reactions that people would have when caught between these two poles moving from a kind of rapture to panic.

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Ship of Fools (Detail)

JS: How long did it take you to complete this painting?

CD: The work developed over a period of a year. I have always wanted to tackle more complicated narrative subjects, and for the first time since who-knows-when, I've had a stable enough situation to go ahead and paint something without worrying about whether or not it would go to a gallery, or if it would sell. So I decided to go for it. I hope to be doing more of this sort of thing in the future. It has been a really fun experience and one of the most rewarding things I've painted to date.

Carl Dobsky
April 10 - May 2
John Pence Gallery
750 Post Street
San Francisco, California 94109
Hours: 10 am to 6 pm (Mon - Fri)
10 am to 5 pm (Sat)

David Allan Peters at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe

David Allan Peters, whose work is on view at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe through April 19th, has been building heavily layered paintings that he carves into to reveal rich stratigraphies of color. Kaleidoscopic in their intensity, Peters' works are both intuitive excavations and explorations of pattern.

I recently spoke to David Allan Peters and asked him about his background, his education and his methods.

John Seed Interviews David Allan Peters:


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David Allan Peters
JS: David, from what you tell me you grew up in a family that supported your creativity...

DAP: Definitely: as a child I was making things all the time. My parents were very supportive and I was was allowed to try whatever I wanted.

JS: When did you decide to be an artist?

DAP: I took my first art class in junior college in Cupertino, CA (which at time was a very small agricultural town) and began playing with materials and received encouraging feedback from my teachers.

Then I got serious and attended the San Francisco Art Institute from 1995 through 1997. In San Francisco, I was exposed to more art and artists: it was a big step. My parents got me an SFMOMA membership and I would stop in at the museum daily. I was exposed to so much there: I loved their Sigmar Polke, and I remember seeing a Richard Serra splash piece.

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Untitled #26, 2014, Acrylic on wood panel, 48 x 36 inches
JS: What kind of work did you do in San Francisco?

DAP: At SFAI I was into abstraction and materials. I was trying to make my own kind of marks, but not a brushstroke. Being in the Bay Area I was looking at "juicy" paintings -- like Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo's The Rose -- and I kept asking myself: 'How can I use that kind of energy another way?'

I did some cut out paintings, and also some that were scratched out and had sand in them. That was the beginning of the layering in my work. I was just making a lot of work, painting all the time, becoming obsessed with the process of making paintings.

Liat Yossifor, who is also showing at Amerigner | McEnery | Yohe, was an undergraduate at SFAI with me, and I remember that we were both completely "geeked out" on painting.

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Untitled #1, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: And after that you did grad work in Claremont with Karl Benjamin, right?

DAP: Actually, when I got to Claremont I hadn't heard of Karl Benjamin. But I started to see him and his dog 'Macho'. We started to talk a lot, and we clicked and became good friends and I started helping him out as a studio assistant. Karl reinforced the intuitiveness in my art work. That was a turning point for me. Although I still wasn't sure what was going on in my work at that time, something was changing and I began to work with color more.

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Untitled #2, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: Have you always been an abstract artist?

DAP: Not exactly. As a kid, I copied old master paintings out of my parent's old art books. I tried hard to paint those kinds of paintings, but I couldn't quite do it. I soon figured out that I could make them look good by hiding paint layers by putting stain over them. It made them look much better, and I used sandpaper to bring up the colors. It definitely connects with some of what I am doing now.

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Edge detail: photo by Lance Gerber
JS: Tell me a bit about the processes involved in your recent "carved" works.

DAP: They just go and go: I don't keep track of how many layers I have used...sometimes hundreds. One of my big things is the edge. I am always thinking about lines and stripes in my paintings. And to see all of those, you have to look around the piece. As far as carving goes, its just one little chip at a time... like a mantra... until the painting becomes harmonious.

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Untitled #4, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: Are you pouring paint as you go? Scraping?

DAP: I do it with a paintbrush. I start by hiding the strokes from the layer before: I make all these fine layers and then I try to erase them from the surfaces. There are a lot of happy accidents along the way: random things. But then, I regain control by carving the surface.

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Untitled #6, 2015, Acrylic on wood panel, 18 x 14 inches
JS: Who are some of the other artists that you are looking at?

DAP: I live in Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles which is blocks away from LACMA. I take breaks from my work and ride my bike up to LACMA a few times a times a week. I enjoy looking at Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman and Tomma Abts.

I keep to myself so I can stay directed. You have to work hard.

JS: What are your interests outside of art?

DAP: I ride my bike, garden -- I try do quiet things. And I enjoy NHL hockey.

JS: Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

DAP: I'm a shy person which enables me to stay directed and work hard at making work. I want people to get what they can from them, to take their time and enjoy.

David Allan Peters
March 19 - April 18
Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe
525 West 22nd Street, NY, NY 10011

Works by David Allan Peters can also be viewed at:
Royale Projects: Contemporary Art
73190 El Paseo Suite #3 Palm Desert CA 92262
760.742.5182

Jim Morphesis: 'Wounds of Existence' at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

"Wounds of Existence," an exhibition of the works of Los Angeles artist Jim Morphesis, now on view at the Pasadena Museum of California art, explores the predicaments of human life. Based on themes inspired by the Greek Orthodox faith and the paintings of Old Masters, Morphesis' works of the past four decades communicate the artist's ideas about both human vulnerability and transcendence.

I recently interviewed Jim Morphesis and asked him about his background and the themes of his work.  

John Seed Interviews Jim Morphesis
 
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Jim Morphesis
JS: Tell me about the early years of your life and how they shaped you. When did you know you were an artist?  

JM: As a child growing up in the Philadelphia area, I would draw, paint, make models and catch bugs and slimy things. By the time I was in the fourth grade, I knew most species of frogs and butterflies in the Northeast United States. My father was an exceptionally talented illustrator whose burgeoning career was interrupted by war and a call to service. He remained in the military long enough to achieve the rank of Air Force Colonel. This had me growing up in a disciplined house that, to this day, affects my studio practice.

In time, my father returned to art, becoming a designer for the government. This meant that I had access to wonderful, good quality art materials and I took full advantage of the situation by using these materials to draw and paint everything that interested me. At thirteen, I decided that I would become a working artist following my retirement as a professional football player. My high school football career convinced me to give up the dream of being a Philadelphia Eagle and I headed straight to art school.

I attended the Tyler School of Art for my BFA degree and then headed to the West Coast to be a part of the first graduate class at the California Institute of the Arts. CalArts landed me in Los Angeles and, while I lived and worked in New York for eight years, I have spent most of the past four decades working as a Los Angeles based artist.

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No Sanctuary, 1981, Oil, acrylic, wood, nails, wire, tape, and gold leaf on wood panel, 26.5 x 29 inches
Collection of Dr. Ray Mnich, Palm Springs
 
JS: What role has your Greek Orthodox faith had in your artistic development?  

JM: For anyone raised in the Greek Orthodox tradition, strictly or loosely, the church will remain a significant part of your life. For me, the aesthetics of the church affected my work from the beginning. Entering the church of my youth, in Philadelphia, was like stepping into Byzantium. Hundreds of bees wax candles illuminated gilded icons and filled the air with an aroma of honey that mixed with the scent of incense. Along with the chanting that also filled the large open space of the church, this was quite a sensual experience.

I was fascinated by the icon images that lined the top of the altar. St. George slaying the dragon was heroic and the Christ on the cross presented man in both the most vulnerable and certain position possible. To this day, these experiences and remembrances affect my work both in content and the materials that I use.

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Destiny, 1982, Oil, magna, alkyd resin, and wood on wood panel, 68 x 64 inches
Collection of Laifun Chung and Ted Kotcheff, Beverly Hills
 
JS: You are known for experimenting with media. Tell me about some of your experiments.  

JM: I never consider combining different mediums and materials as experiments. At the same time, I suppose all that we do as artists can be seen as experimental; the outcome is never a certainty. The materials used in my mixed media paintings were in response to the natural growth of the work. There was a time, years ago, when I wanted to bury my history and make way for something new.

I began collaging all the personal letters that I had been keeping into a series of works on paper. This was a cathartic endeavor that lead to the works in which I rendered versions of historic paintings such as a Bellini, Pieta and the Velazquez, Christ on the Cross, onto surfaces constructed of found timbers, old furniture and doors. These were objects that brought their own history into my work. The process was natural and never seemed experimental.

There was, however, that one time very long ago when I tried to create a thick silver colored paint matter using rhoplex, glass sand blasting beads and aluminum powder. The concoction exploded all over the walls of my studio ...twice. That was something that I might consider an experiment.

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Big Dream, 1983, Oil, magna, wood, fabric, and gold leaf on wood panel, 68 x 86 x 9 inches
Collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art
 
JS: Is it fair to say that your art really began to take off when you began working with the imagery of the crucifixion?  

JM: The paintings that included crucifix images were first shown in a 1981 exhibition at Mt. St. Mary's College called Cruciform Paintings. Solo exhibitions soon followed at then popular Los Angeles galleries including Traction Gallery and Tortue Gallery. These exhibitions received a great deal of attention, created a demand for the work and had me realizing that I was one of the artists at the fore of the Los Angeles Expressionist art movement.

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Female Torso with Green Doors, 1989, Oil, acrylic, gouache, charcoal, and collage on wood panel with wood doors, 71 x 83 inches
Collection of the Orange County Museum of Art
 
JS: You have been working with Peter Selz, who curated your show. What kinds of revelations has working with Peter given you?  

JM: Working with Peter Selz has been an honor and an opportunity for which I am very grateful. I often asked Peter about artists who have influenced me as a painter. Because Peter personally knew people such as Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning and was a close friend of Mark Rothko, these artists seemed very present during our conversations. There is a humanist connection among all of the Expressionist artists that Peter is interested in. Peter's enthusiasm for my work was most encouraging and reminded me that I am a part of this continuing tradition. We all need an occasional shot in the arm by someone for whom we have the greatest respect.

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Skull and Red Door, 1987, Oil, magna, enamel, charcoal, paper, wood, and gold leaf on wood panel, 80 x 72 inches
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
 
JS: Are you a Neo-Expressionist? If not, is there a school of painting you feel most connected to?  

JM: I never considered myself a Neo-Expressionist, but the weighty Expressionist paintings that I was doing through most of the 1980's connected me to the Neo-Expressionist movement and that has been fine with me.

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Rose XV, 2012, Oil, enamel, gouache, and collage on wood panel, 26 x 26 inches
Collection of the artist
 
JS: What has your most recent work been about?  

JM: I have been painting images of fleshy and brooding roses. These works are my versions of a classic memento mori. They are, like my paintings incorporating images of the crucifix, skulls and mythological characters, meant to represent us all as both heroic and painfully mortal.

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Marsyas III, 2001, Oil, gouache, charcoal, pastel, joint compound, and collage on paper, 80 x 45 inches
Collection of Brent Giddens 
 
JS: How do you hope viewers will respond to your show?  

JM: This exhibition includes a selection of my paintings from the past four decades.. I would like visitors to the PMCA to have an appreciation of my commitment to the development of my art. I hope that viewers might realize a connection, in the paintings, with their own triumphs and wounds of existence. And I would, of course, be delighted if some viewers see my work as dynamic and beautiful to look at.  

JS: What are your interests outside of art?  

JM: I apologize for how this might sound, but outside of making art, I am primarily interested in finding more time to make art. Okay, I admit that I also want to be a responsible art educator, put some energy into maintaining relationships, occasionally watch sports on television, make time to damage my joints at the gym and there are certain movies that I can see again and again. Everything, however, still relates to making art.

JIM MORPHESIS: Wounds of Existence

January 25, 2015-May 31, 2015
The Pasadena Museum of California Art
490 East Union Street Pasadena, CA 91101
Wednesday-Sunday: 12-5pm 3rd Thursdays: 5-8pm

'Heightened Perceptions': A Call to Artists

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Dear Artists,

I have been asked to curate an issue of Poets and Artists Magazine to be published in July of 2015. The theme I have chosen is Heightened Perceptions. For my curated issue of Poets and Artists I am seeking paintings that powerfully reflect the ways that individual artists perceive, and respond to the visual world around them. The works can be representational, abstract or somewhere in between. Works derived from both actual observation and/or photographic references will be considered.

Each artist chosen will be asked to submit a short statement about how their visual perceptions are present in the work. I am also interested in how each artist's emotions and imagination may have played a role in the development of imagery.

Artists from anywhere in the world may submit their work, and each artist selected will be sent a complimentary digital edition of the magazine.

All selections will be made by John Seed based on his taste, judgement and curatorial standards.

If you would like to be considered, here is the information you will need:  

Deadline: May 1, 2015  

Publication: July 2015  

Submission Guidelines - Follow directions closely so as not to have your work go into our junk/spam folder.  

Name the folder: Heightened_Perceptions_First and Last Name Send up to three images (high resolution 300dpi - jpg). Do not send TIFF or any other format. Place a word doc or txt file with your submission including the title, size and medium for each of the works included along with your name and email address. Also send a statement about the work as indicated below. We will contact you only if your work will be published. If you are contacted for publication, we will ask for further materials.

Share your folder via dropbox.com with didimenendez@gmail.com.

Nathan Lewis at Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery

Nathan Lewis, whose work is now on view in a solo exhibition in Stamford, Connecticut, is a painter with a strong feeling for the cycles of history, but no desire to reach back towards a "Golden Age." Lewis finds more than enough subjects in the world that surrounds him right now and he paints abandoned factory sites with the same vigor and pathos that Piranesi brought to this views of ruined Greco-Roman temples.

In the view of his dealer, Fernando Luis Alvarez, Lewis is endowed with an intense sense of intellectual curiosity that "prevents his work from becoming stale." Alvarez sees Lewis as an artist whose work "vibrates with electricity and is masterfully painted; soaked in multitudes of historical, literary, philosophical and cultural references..."

I recently interviewed Nathan Lewis to ask him more about his background and the ideas behind his recent work.

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Nathan Lewis
 
JS: Tell me about your early life. Were you always creative and artistic?  

NL: I certainly liked to draw, but I didn't think of myself as creative until I started acting on it enough to realize that perhaps I was creative. I came out of the skating/bmx culture of the late 1980's. I had created a 'zine about bmx and youth culture in Northern California. The 'zine led me to photography, and photography led me towards art. At about 20 years old, I had taken a few art classes, and the idea that art was a potential way to make sense of the world absorbed me. I got very serious about it, and it grounded me in a way nothing else was able to.

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Division Collapse, Oil on canvas, 24" x 36", 2014
 
JS: Nathan you have studied painting both in the US and in Europe. Tell me a bit about your studies and how they shaped you and your art.  

NL: My relationship with academia was a tenuous one. I was in and out of school a lot and took eleven years to get an undergraduate degree. I went to Sacramento City College for about 8 years on and off, just taking classes that interested me. I moved to St. Petersburg, Russia for six months in 1993. I had no formal training there, but I lived about three blocks from the Hermitage, and would draw regularly from the Rembrandt and Rubens paintings. I spent more time in that museum than I had in any classroom and I really started to detect the eccentricities of different artists' work. I didn't know who Ribera was before I was in St. Petersburg, but I was so excited by the paintings of his, I thought I had discovered a great unknown artist. Of course as I went to more and more museums, I would come to realize that they also had work by Ribera.

The paintings in the Hermitage held a secret and spoke a language that I felt connected to but did not understand fully. The time in front of those works was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of looking at paintings in museums and galleries, learning and deciphering the language. At the tail end of my time in Russia, I went to Krakow, in Poland to see Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine, and hitchhiked to Germany, to visit the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin.

The time in museums, the books I was reading, the music I listened to all shaped my work. I consider these integral parts of my education, much of which happened outside of school. in 1995, I studied in Italy at the Florence Academy of Art for a semester. It wasn't a great fit for me, but being in Italy was a dream. I skipped school a lot and would go to the churches and the drawing-room of the Uffizi to be with the works that spoke to me.

When I moved back to the states, I painted a lot, but over time felt I still needed some form of instruction. I went to Lyme Academy College in CT, which had a component of academic instruction, but a larger faculty with broader scope than the FAA and a great art historian, Joy Pepe, whom I married ten years later. I got my BFA there, took a year off, and then went to SMFA, Boston and Tufts University, receiving my MFA in 2004.

SMFA was very different from the other schools I attended, and it was a welcomed change to be thrown in with artists working in the full gamut of media explored today. As far as the people in formal schooling that had the greatest influence on my work, Fred Dalkey at SCC and Joy Pepe at LACFA. In Fred, I saw that it was possible to be connected intimately to this vast history of art, even in work that is contemporary in nature. Through Joy I came to realize that art was much bigger than its maker. She challenged me intellectually and gave me insight into the complexity of how art can be interpreted, and how it has functioned in culture. This excited me to think that we, as artists, are playing with images and juxtapositions of which we may not gather the full meaning. It gave me a larger sense of what art could be.

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Orange Was the Sky, Oil on canvas, 72" x 66", 2010
 
JS: What did your art look like a decade ago?  

NL: My work in 2005 was a bit more graphic (visually). I was using more appropriated imagery and experimenting heavily with masking and varied methods of applying paint- pouring, staining, spraying, swiping. It was a little more like printmaking. My work fluctuates between naturalism and a constructed, designed, collage influenced presentation. I have also done some installations and am currently starting some large format woodcuts. Painting is my primary practice, but there are occasional offshoots.

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Octaves, Oil on canvas, 24" x 24", 2014
 
JS: How and when did you begin painting abandoned factories?  

NL: I've always loved exploring abandoned spaces. 2011 is when I first decided to paint them. I've always been more of a figure painter and object (form) oriented. The factories were a departure from that mode of thinking and more related to settings. Although figures are in most of the paintings, the architecture and composition play a larger role in the psychology of the piece. Some of these spaces that are collapsing provided an experience of light that was uncommon and made me contemplate anew the strangeness and beauty of light. I think that is what prompted me to the series of works. The unfamiliar forms provided the challenge of inventing new personal translations of what I saw and felt into the formal language of painting. The factories themselves are ruins of an industriousness that is foreign to us today.

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Gate Keeper, Oil on canvas, 72" x 48", 2013
 
JS: Is it fair to say that nostalgia, transformation and loss are some of your recurring themes?  

NL: If I tried to pinpoint recurring themes, I think mortality, desire, and history are what guide the work most. I'm particularly interested in doorways or moments between worlds or realities. The subject within the painting, myself, or the viewer is often in a position to choose between, or at least to come up against two, often conflicting, fields. These could be the history and the present, the abject in light of the mythic, the tension between ethics and desire, or absurdity and humor amidst grave realities.

Of the terms you mentioned, transformation is the one to which I feel the most connected; particularly the occurrences that can change us or reveal our distinctions or make us understand what our hidden motivations are. Loss can certainly be a part of change, and I tend to think we as humans gain more from failure and the things in the world that pose the greatest threat to us. Failure and loss help us understand and question our desires. It can breed doubt, which I see as difficult, but ultimately very healthy, if one can still hold on to their desires or a sense of purpose.

Nostalgia is a little trickier. As much as I study and admire the history of the arts, I'm really not interested in living in the past or idealizing it. I see nostalgia as a symptom of being human. It is easier to idealize something that is safely established in the past than it is to work with the difficulties and uncertainties of the present. This is what I see as the main problem with the atelier system and the Classical Realist movement in art we see today. I have no desire to go back to a golden age. When I rely on historic modes of depictions or formal languages associated with a certain time period, I'm often doing it to shed light on the time we live in and how it is different from the time I am referencing. Other times I'm trying to get at the nature of humans and dissect the need for nostalgia or complicate its purpose.

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Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling, Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 120", 2008
 
JS: Tell me about your painting Till We Find the Blessed Isles...  

NL: Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling is a contemporary re-imagining of Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emmanuel Leutze. Looking at the original painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I contemplated what the difference was between America at the very beginning and America now. Leutze's painting is one of the first depictions of what we associate as the American Dream, a quest for independence and freedom, and the willingness to partake in the struggle to achieve it. The painting is an icon of the American Spirit. Using the framework of the original painting as a starting point, I reference the painting directly, using some of the same poses of the figures. The differences between the paintings become a 230 year dialogue of a nation continually struggling for their independence.  

Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling gets its title from a line in Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Blessed Isles, also called the Elysian Fields, is a Greek concept of where the virtuous go to rest at the end of their lives. Tying this in with the idea of the quest of the American Dream, I depicted the boat battling seemingly insurmountable swells towards a promised land. The youth in the boat strive towards a future they have yet to achieve.

The diversity of race and gender gives a more contemporary view of the America we see today. The models for the painting were specific college students becoming adults through education and struggling towards their own unique futures. This is hinted at through the Asian American female seen twice in the painting. Near the back of the painting, she is seen holding a doll-like a child, yet at the front of the painting she stands in Washington's position confidently leading the group over the treacherous waters. In George Washington Crossing the Delaware the boatmen row their way towards a chance at a new future and the chance of a nation built of independence and freedom.

Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling shows a diverse, multicultural America, already a nation, already free, already successful, yet struggling with the sustainability of a lifestyle still dependent on foreign resources. Clues to this in the painting are the emergency gas can dragging behind the boat and the tiny oil derrick the standing figure grasps. In both paintings the American Dream is revealed as a continual fight for independence.

The text on the sides of Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling quotes the Declaration of Independence, which in essence is a text that speaks to the tension between the individuals that make up a culture and the government that is meant to serve them.  

JS: Do you favor comedy or tragedy in your work?  

NL: I use both in my work. Tragedy is perhaps the more apparent, but I do feel a special connection to comedians. They so often see society from a position on the peripheries of it, and they point to sore spots and taboos of our cultures in ways that only the persecuted could. Comedians regularly come out of tragic lives, but they use humor as a way to triumph over the ills of living. And if they don't triumph, they at least put up the good fight. I do get questioned a lot for making paintings that are dark or seemingly pessimistic.

 As someone who came into the world not feeling ready for it, I sometimes use painting to explore and point to the dilemmas I face and others will face living in the world. Focusing on the dilemmas gives me time to question my fears or at least to recognize them in a realm where I have a higher degree of interaction and say. I'm not sure this is tragedy, more than it is coming to terms with things that may threaten the parts of humanity I value most. Some of the artists and writers that have been the greatest help to me have seemingly dark or absurdist views on life.

Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Calvino, Nietzsche, Bach, Goya, Rembrandt, Kollwitz, Blake, and Beckett. I see in them, their works, and their characters, an intense will to hold onto their humanity in spite of the multitude of things that threaten it. Their inclusion of the darker side of human nature gives integrity to their art in that their humanity has to survive and play out in an uncertain world that is not unlike our own. Along these lines, I think my exploration of darker subjects is more than anything else trying to ensure that art is not simply about beauty and aesthetics. That it is not merely a pretty thing to admire, but a reflection on the full complexity of what it is to live.

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Light is the Lion that Comes Down to Drink, Oil on canvas, 48" x 67", 2012
JS: Who are your most important influences?  

NL: The people I was lucky enough to come across in life when I needed them, my wife and family and a few others are whom I value most. My artistic influences are all over the board, but here are some:

Magritte-his interest in the language component of images

J.L.David- the narration and politics

Ingres-design and the strangeness of his desire

Titian/Lennart Anderson/Turner/Inness- their faith in the substance of paint (application)

Duchamp-the creativity of his intellect

Poussin- composing and earnestness

Vermeer- formal language

Grunewald-expression Fra Angelico-clarity/purity

Van Eyck, -patience, devotion

 Durer-ambition, will, and patience.

 Early Kollwitz- innate ability to understand form

Tiepolo- Color and Orchestration Brueghel- Social Commentary and composing

Some contemporary artists that excite me are Ann Hamilton, Janine Antoni, Anselm Kiefer, Larri Pittman, Neo Rauch, Urs Fischer, and Marlene Dumas. In the realm of words: Italo Calvino, Wallace Stevens, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Plato, the story of Joseph, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Crane, Meister Eckhart, Kafka, Borges, Dostoyevsky, Beckett, Rousseau, Plato, Stephen Crane, William Blake, the narratives of Moses and John the Baptist. Music: Bach, Beethoven, Frank Black, Minor Threat, Ty Segall, Lead Belly. Film: Jane Campion, Mike Leigh, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa  

JS: What are your interests outside of art?  

NL: Anything that tries to get at the core of what we might be doing here. I love to see people suddenly finding a voice and say in the world.

 JS: Is there anything else you would like to mention?  

NL: Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery will be having a lecture and panel discussion in the very near future on the painting Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling. The Panelists will include curators, politicians, myself and Fernando.

I have a couple of museum shows coming up. One is in Summer 2015 called Remythologies: New Inventions of Old Stories, curated by Stephen Kobasa at the Housatonic Museum in CT. The other is a solo show in Fall 2015 at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, curated by Elizabeth Peterson.  

Nathan Lewis: Solo Exhibition
March 14 - April 18
Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery
96 Bedford Street, Stamford, CT 06901
Tues. - Sat.: 11 AM - 6 PM Sunday: closed