Saturday, November 9, 2013

John Lees, John Davis Gallery

First off, kudos to John Davis Gallery. This was our first visit and I hope there are many more. His visionary exhibition venue starts out conventionally enough. The upstairs/downstairs primary gallery spaces of the old town house are pleasantly illuminated and neatly organized.
Then there is the dramatic segue into a leafy sculpture garden out back that fronts an old converted carriage house. Entering the darkened, barn-like structure, one encounters concrete walls reminiscent of a quasi-military bunker. You might think this wouldn’t be conducive to the subtleties of art viewing, but in the context of ultra over-architected art repositories, this rustic relic of a viewing space is a revelation.

Continuing up through four exhibition floors, we are treated to art hanging in a slightly scary looking commode from long ago, a mammoth old rope powered freight elevator with an open shaft, and the top floor which affords views out over the antique town of Hudson that could be right out of a Rembrandt or Vermeer.

This was also my introduction to John Lees’s painting on view in the street front town house. Although there are many nuanced aspects to this quintessential painter, my first, and somewhat overwhelming reaction was “this looks a lot like Gandy Brodie lite”.
Having studied with Brodie in my youth, I feel qualified to comment on his influence in my own work, and by extension when it is felt so strongly in others.
I don’t know if Lees ever knew Brodie, but he certainly had to have seen his work. Influences in painting are a vital part an artist’s evolution, but emulation is a slippery slope, artists usually turn the corner on overtly stylistic referentiality, and move on to more interpretative modes.
Yet Lees seems lovingly devoted to these lovely derivations, and he’s really good at it too. This work will charm your pants off, while magnifying how relevant the old adage is about the sincerity of flattery.

The paintings are saturated with bumpy impasto and earth colors, and like Brodie, revel in a layered transference of nature into paint. Lees is actually a more sophisticated draftsman and manipulator of pigment than Brodie, while more focused on the traditional conventions of figure, scenery, and sentiment. 

Lees's forte is his ability to deftly incorporate figurative, landscape and architectural iconography into succinctly mysterious scenes that resist the artist’s formal inclinations. Becoming lustrously loose, these softly diffused images use textured layers of dense color to fill in outlines of hokey, posed looking compositions that the artist might have drawn out in advance. His interiors are especially effective; dimly lit from within, there’s a plasticity to the spatial relationships that lends credibility and weight to the pictorial narrative.   

The seductive surfaces are all about built-up strata of paint delicately morphing into a pearly, satin-like patina that tends to delve into a Ryder-esque chiaroscuro.
Lees has anything but a heavy hand, yet theres an insistent and intentional dependency on thick impasto that at times seems to be a means to an end, and implies that this is a conceit he cannot (or would not) do without.
But what if Lees had never known of Brodie’s work? I’d imagine he’d have made himself into a perfectly competent representational painter, but without the romantic flair and painterly intensity gained from this symbiotic relationship. I don’t mean to accuse Lees of plagiaristic intent, or appropriation. Perhaps he just revels in coating his work in Brodie’s commanding charisma, which I’m sure is a very tempting premise indeed.

 John Lees (above)                                                      Gandy Brodie (above)

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