Saturday, December 17, 2016

Norman Lewis at Chicago Cultural Center

March on Washington, 1965

Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis at the Chicago Cultural Center


Like many American artists of his generation, Norman Lewis (1909-1979) began with social realism in the 1930’s and switched to Abstract Expression after the war. As the artist once wrote  “the development of one’s aesthetic  abilities suffers by an emphasis on social conflict – the content of creative painting develops automatically with the choice of forms and colors, for the combination of composition and color is the content.. “ Yet this retrospective serves best as a chronicle of social conflict.   “Police Beating” (1943) is the most compelling image in the show,  and not just because the subject is as relevant as ever.  Taking an aerial view, as he would throughout his career,  Lewis presents a fallen black man beaten bloody by a white cop while another white man grins and a third stops to take a look.  It ironically meshes horrific subject matter with the pleasant color graphics of a Sunday newspaper’s comic strip.


Apparently it was Post-war Jazz that inspired Lewis to work with  Abstract Expression.   Be-Bop was the most dynamic eruption of  spontaneous  improvisation America had ever seen, and it was born in Lewis’s African American community of  New York.  Obviously Lewis identified with the musicians who stood up on stage and blew with all the pent up emotion they could muster. His paintings share the intensity of  great jazz solos,  but his compositions are not especially melodic,  pursuing   diversity of mark making more than unity of design.  They are not appealing, but once you enter them, the possibility for exploration among the details seems endless.



Among other painters of the period, Lewis drew closer to the delicate ambivalence of Wolfgang Paalen than the heroic display of Gorky or DeKooning.  Paalen had introduced a technique of fumage (candle smoke ) to create the kind of blurry,  nebulous form that Lewis would use in contrast to the  sharp edges and calligraphic marks that straddle the threshold of recognizability.   As suggested by the title of one of his pieces from 1948, “Rhododendrons in Winter”, many of his pieces  from that time depict a kind of somber, resilient faith and melancholy defiance.


But his spirit was raised, in both anger and hope, as he entered the 1960’s and the quickening of the Civil Rights Movement.  The strongest piece from this period is “American Totem” of 1960.  It’s title recalls a famous essay by Paalen (“Totem Art”, 1943) while its white on black image resembles the hooded garb of the Klu Klux Klan.  As history progressed, Lewis’s field of expressive marks began to resemble crowds and processions of people on the march. Eventually his gatherings were clearly celebratory, as in “New World Acoming” (1971) and “Aurora Borealis” (1976)


Outside the context of African American history, the paintings of Norman Lewis are well made, but not exceptional.  His talents lay more with calligraphy. As he once wrote: “The whole thing in a sense became calligraphy, which made me pay more attention to Chinese Art--- everybody going someplace and nobody getting anywhere”  That’s a good description of any art practice that focuses on discrete elements of detail.  Lewis’s details are comparable to the Chinese characters of the great 11th Century calligrapher, Su Shi.  And his work is all the more remarkable for having originated from his own life rather than a tradition that was already a thousand years old. 

Police Beating, 1943

Jazz Musicians, 1947

Too Much Aspiration, 1947

Rhododendrons in Winter, 1948

American Totem, 1960

Aurora Borealis, 1976

Aurora Borealis (detail)


Su Shi, "Cold Food Observance" (detail), (1084-1086)


Regarding other reviews of this show:

Stan Mir reviewed the Norman Lewis exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for Hyperallergic.  He questions why Lewis has never been included in surveys of Abstract  Expressionism, even though he was friends with Ad Reinhardt and was photographed with some of the other players.  Apparently he has not noticed that Lewis' paintings look very different. Not every abstract and expressive painting made in  that time and place belongs to the New York  school.

Stephen F. Eisenman reviewed the Chicago Cultural Center show for New City.   He has picked up the melancholy mood of Lewis' work  from the forties but apparently missed the celebratory works from the 1960's and 1970's.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Shai Azoulay at Zolla Lieberman

Shai Azoulay, "Rhombus", 2016

Despite the title of this exhibit, “Pupil”, the artist, Shai Azoulay, is already a master of line and color.  At a distance,  you see stick figures;  moving up close, there appears the delicate expression of figurative structure and gesture.  Sometimes his color is so remarkable, it’s difficult to think about anything else.   He arranges clear, strong hues to maximize the effect of each .

 The narratives are puzzling in the way that cartoons in the New Yorker can be.  Design makes the ambiance whimsical and sophisticated, while meaning can be elusive.   A few pieces feel like puzzling fables from the Arabian nights. One is set in a Middle Eastern souk. Often he presents a solitary figure in a vast desert.  That sense of isolation and child-like wonder recalls that classic of children’s literature, “The Little Prince” by Saint-ExupĂ©ry. Like its solitary hero, the artist is still exploring  the world beginning with himself.  He often includes what appear to be self portraits with a gentle, bearded face.   That face is the focus of attention in “Bus #69”, where a circle of people, young and old, are interconnected by glowing lines of thick, orange paint.  Are they his parents, friends and family?  In “Mingling”, that same face, now disembodied, is one of many mask-like heads on strings that comprise a Middle Eastern beaded curtain.  They must be the people who live and work in his neighborhood.


No sacred meta-narrative connects the depicted community, as it does on the facades of medieval cathedrals. There is a furtive quality in his painting of precious, small figures set against a thinly brushed void. It suggests that just as everything has quickly come together in a charming way – it may also vanish just as suddenly.  You might call it a nostalgia for the present.   Those who follow current events can guess why an Israeli artist might feel that way. He spells it out in “Study 2016”.  Two men face each other on a tight rope above an abyss.  Each carries a long pole for balance .  Or is it a weapon?  Neither is likely to reach the other side.


David Leggett at Gallery 400

David Leggett, "I Feel Threatened", 2016
Several streams of American visual culture flow together in David Leggett’s recent work. As with abstract painting, careful attention has been given to how color, line, and texture interact on a flat surface. Subtlety, however, takes a back seat to attention grabbing sentiment, just as in mass marketed toys.  The artist’s own collection of Walmart tchotchkes accompanies the exhibit, as does a pointy nosed portrait by Jim Nutt. Leggett has professed admiration for Chicago’s  cartoonish provocateurs from the sixties.  He also admires the hard hitting racial agitprop of Kara Walker. Her nightmarish drawing, “the N Word”, also accompanies his exhibit. 


Mostly, Leggett’s art recalls topical stand-up comedy, like that of Richard Pryor, one of whose album covers is also on display.  Each piece is a joke – not the kind that makes you laugh out loud, but the kind that rattles around in the brain until it draws an inner smile of recognition – or not.   It makes sense to accompany text like “All lives Matter” with the image of a dopey white kid standing beside a smiling purple gum drop.  But why accompany “HELLO HATER” with an image of Elvis Presley?  Who is the hater?   Elvis, or those who need no evidence to accuse a Southern white rock-n-roller of racism? 


Despite the themes of social justice, Leggett is mostly looking inward, showing us how those themes flicker on his screen of self awareness .  A disembodied self-portrait floats throughout the exhibition, from one painting to another.  Sometimes a Polaroid selfie, usually it’s a strongly drawn cartoon of himself as a strong but gentle, wise but innocent, man-child.


Consistent with challenging hierarchies of taste and power, the artist does not appear to have set standards for what he will show.  One piece, “WASH YA ASS”, is more appropriate for a grade school washroom than an art gallery. Other pieces should to be considered for any group show of strong young painters who explore coming of age in America.  Overall, the show is more about the person than his painting. He’s an enjoyable person to meet.


Here is a review of his next show at Shane Campbell.  Though the show opened only four months later, it does not include the same pieces.  Perhaps this new work is less self centered and more mature.  Or perhaps the critic just chose to write more of a promotional fluff piece - which is the only kind of art criticism that New City will publish when social justice is the issue.