Friday, March 27, 2009

Louis St.Lewis, The Charlotte Observer 1996

Mythology Infuses Works by Louis St.Lewis

by Tom Patterson, The Charlotte Observer

The latest of the frequent duo exhibitions at Center of the Earth Gallery is dominated by an artist new to the gallery and to Charlotte.
    Louis St.Lewis had one mixed media piece in a group show earlier this year, but otherwise this is his first Charlotte exhibit.
    The Chapel Hill artist works in different media, and his fundamental artistic strategy involves appropriating and refashioning scavenged images to create unabashedly  gaudy works, combining references to pop culture with evocations of religion and mythology.
    "Flamboyant" is the best word to describe his art.  He uses lurid colors, big flowers, grandiose titles, seductive fashion model images and anything else he can find to call  as much attention as possible to his brilliant and distinctive mixed-media pieces.
   The largest of St.Lewis' works is " Apollo and Daphne" which includes painted passages, but is in essence a large scale collage.
    In his rendition of the Greek myth, Daphne's  eyes are shut and she holds and Egyptian ankh symbol in her left hand as she leans to one side , looking stiff as a board- the artists way of suggesting her transformation into a tree.  Apollo grasps her with one hand and hold an arrow to her breast with the other.
    Most of the component images that make up this piece are transferred directly onto the canvas from photographic imagery that St. Lewis culls from popular magazines and other sources. Among these are the faces and  most other physical features of the two central figures, as well as a profusion of peripheral images, including feathers, leaves, flowers, birds, insects and - for some reason- a two dollar bill.   The painted passages in high-key shades of yellow, red blue and green serve mainly to fill in the background and the remaining spaces around this found imagery.
    Several smaller compositions feature this collage-painting mix.  Unlike " Apollo and Daphne" however, most of these pieces aren't related to familiar narratives.  As a result, they are more ambiguous.  They are in effect portraits of imaginary individuals the artist has concocted largely from photographic bits and pieces lifted from commercial sources.

Mixture is the message

   Each of these works centers on a single individual whose face and upper torso belong to a fashion model or some other young good looking celebrity.  After enlarging the image and transferring it to the canvas, St.lewis elaborates on it with paint and additional imagery he fuses with the figure or applies elsewhere.  The effect is to make each portrait as haughty, androgynous and/or sinister as possible.
    St.Lewis completed these mixed-media pieces by giving them titles evoking various historical and cultural associations.  The two most impressive are " The Nagasaki Annunciation" and  " The Levitation of Marie Antoinette".  In the latter work, part of the logo from a Harper's Bazaar magazine cover can be seen above the central disembodied head, topped by a festive flower bouquet and floating against a sky-blue backdrop.
    St.Lewis' main artistic strength is not his painting but rather his ability to organize images or objects appropriated from other sources.  In his best work, he combines such found materials into carefully ordered compositions with  a certain baroque elegance and highlighting juxtapositions that are unusual, incongruous, irreverent or sexually suggestive.
    His strongest pieces are the smaller unpainted collages, which incorporate cutout paper photo images, as well as photos that have been transferred to clear sheets of glass or plastic.  Some of these deal with the themes of sexual desire and sexual display, while others satirize religion and the culture of commodity.  Most of them contain references to St.Lewis' thematic touchstones, classical art and mythology.
   Among the most effective collages is " The vision of Pontius Pilot" in which the face of a Roman emperor sculpted in stone  serves as a backdrop for a configuration of juxtaposed images including an English landscape, a Japanese geisha girl, a sexually ambiguous bare bottom and pair of legs,  a MasterCard emblem and a crucified Christ wearing a Santa Claus hat.

Louis St.Lewis "V" Magazine interview by James Cubby

Louis St.Lewis
by James Cubby, V Magazine

Kicked out of every school that he attended, artist Louis St.Lewis relies on instinct and talent  sprinkled with marketing savvy to guide his career.  Since the age of five, St.Lewis knew he was an artist, but his first exhibit was  fifteen years later in the back of a Limo.  Now living in Chapel Hill, Louis St.Lewis recently opened an exhibition at the Victor Huggins Gallery in Richmond.
     Arriving for his interview at the Hardback Cafe ( a bookstore in Chapel Hill), Louis St. Lewis looks like he stepped out of a scene from Gone With The Wind or the fox hunt sequence from Mame.  With Andy Warhol and Mark Kostabi as role models, St.Lewis loves media attention.  : I have to immortalize myself.  I can't leave it up to the art establishment, " he quips.  St. Lewis creates colorful outlandish paintings that have found their way into the homes of such notables as  Prince Raed Al-Rifai of Kuwait, Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou.   " I don't see why everyone isn't an artist, " says Louis,  " The work is easy and the money is great."  When not painting, St. Lewis spends time working on his cable television show Bump in the Night  which deals with such timely  topics as funeral home fashions and  beauty tips for junkies.  The artist is also finishing a volume of poetry entitled Violets and Venom, to be published this fall.
    St. Lewis seems a mixture of old and new.   " I prefer to live in the past, it's so much more glamorous than the present," says Louis, but the present doesn't seem so bad with a solo exhibit at the Victor Huggins Gallery and with upcoming solo exhibitions at The Danville Museum of Fine Art and Charlottesville's Second Street Gallery.   St.Lewis compares art today to sound bytes and is  " impressed by people that really paint and are not just artists."
    St.Lewis seems at home in the South although he says he is making his way to New York "gallery by gallery".  " I see no reason  why talent has to exit the South," he says.  " It's a wonderful place to be.  This is the age of UPS and FAX." Carrying his love of the South to the extreme at one art exhibition, he hung spanish moss from the ceiling to create a feeling of home.
    Besides art, St.Lewis' other love is money.  A self professed capitalist ( monarchist is his first choice), the volunteers to be the royalty that America needs.  " Maybe I can be the Queen," he says.  The real fun of selling art is " cashing the check and counting my money," admits St. Lewis.  The artist feels that his art is" a great investment" but in another breath, defines art as " something that is useless and takes up space."

Louis St. Lewis will be at his Richmond opening at the Victor Huggins Gallery on April 2 from 7-9 p.m.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Orleans Gambit-Weekly review of Louis St.Lewis

Gambit-Weekly's Arts & Entertainment cover story

Martyrs and Vamps
by D.Eric Bookhardt

And now, for something different. Local art buffs may not know their names, but each is well known in his or her field or region,  Louis St. Lewis has over the years attained a high degree of notoriety  throughout the South, most notably either in Charleston where he was born to a clan of dry-docked yacht-owning gentry, or else in North Carolina's rural hill country, depending on which bio one chooses to believe.  Sean Yseult is also a North Carolinian and in recent years a Big Easy  resident.  Perhaps best known for her musical exploits as the bassist with the band White Zombie, she was co-founder of the local group Rock City Morgue.

Both went to art school together in North Carolina before embarking on their divergent paths, so this show, which features a number of collaborative works as well as individual pieces by each artist, it is a reunion of sorts.  Yseult's photography appears as backlit images in light boxes framed with red velvet, so there's a sense of theater or old-time cinema, appropriate to her subjects: voluptuous odalisques posed like Sarah Bernhardt on tiger skin rugs, or Ophelia-like maidens awash in seaweed.

St.Lewis excels in a series of smallish collages, a mix of pop and classical images cut up and sandwiched between sheets of pexiglas.   Touched up with paint and displayed in ornate frames they have, thanks to their plexi layers, more depth and glass than most collages.  He's been at it for years.  Andy Warhol once described him as "Hieronymous Bosch  meets MTV."  Maybe Max Ernst meets MTV might be a better description of his current work, which melds surrealist imagery with the pop pulsations of alternative rock.  In his collaborations with Yseult, the same holds true, only more so.

Their Old Money, ( who bought Christy Kane?) feature the head of a dapper dude like a youthful Arthur Rimbaud wearing a Civil War-era State of Louisiana $100 bank note with eye holes like a mask.  He has painted red lips like vintage Mick Jagger and a flashy babe on his mind- well actually on his forehead- for there reclines a sultry blonde in a sun dress, framed up in butterfly wings.  Under Groucho Marx eyebrows, snow leopard blue eyes beam like lasers from his Confederate money mask, and it all conveys an uncanny mixture of glamour, sex and antiquity appropriate to someone ( St.Lewis) who once said he wanted to be an artist because of the freedom it bestowed. " A freedom known only to rock stars and Baptist preachers," he opined.

Windmills of Desire is similar, a trendy female head with classical Egyptian ornamental embellishment that turns out to be little blue pills rather than lapis.  A fantastical flying machine is superimposed on her face, a mask of multiple mythologies.  Tears of the Magdelaine is kind of a pop art portrait of the "other" mary, a sultry babe with Christ on her mind, actually a Byzantine Jesus on her forehead.  There are also larger pieces by both artists, and it's all refreshingly unpretentsious, great fun and very very well done.  Hopefully they'll do it again sometimes soon.  These two stellar talents are just the wake up call the New Orleans art scene needs.

Louis St.Lewis , Dead People are Turned into Art, The Sun


Noreen Miller, THE SUN

No bones about it, North Carolina artist Louis St.Lewis has an unusual pastime- turning human bones into morbid works of art.

"Dead people are one of our most abundant natural resources and it is high time we stated taking advantage of them," remarks the 27 year old  who has been working with bones for more than a year and a half.

Louis works primarily  with human bones, but has been known to use animals on occasion.

"I'm quite surprised at the number of people who want to buy human bones art work" , admits the not-so-starving artist. 

Decorated skulls can go for as high as $6,000 while knuckle bone works can be hand carted away for the low price of $250.

" I don't believe in wasting anything." he notes.

Louis' work, "Postmortem Portrait of Andy Warhol", features a human skull covered with Coca-Cola bottle caps, semi-precious stones, and sterling silver.  It was recently included in his successful New York exhibit in  Soho's gallery district.

"There is really nothing new," says Louis. " Many cultures such as the Aztecs and the  Chinese, decorated the bones of their heroes'  The gilded bones of saints can be seen in churches throughout Europe today."

The artistic eccentric purchases his materials from surgical and biological supply houses.  Louis tells the SUN he once bought crates of bones from India.

"They have the best." he claims " They have the best maggots there."

Louis studied in California and New York before making his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  His next exhibition is scheduled for his home state at Raleigh.

" The way I see it , with AIDS and toxic waste everywhere, these are like the old plague years of Europe revisited.  It's only natural that the morbid themes they used would resurface now".

ARTPAPERS review of Louis St.Lewis

Louis St.Lewis - Sex in the Garden
by Linda L. Brown, ARTPAPERS

In the 26 pieces in " Sex in the Garden", Louis St. Lewis populates a pluralist universe with a swath of familiar ghosts from art history and myth.  His oddly historical focus juxtaposes many images, construing a catholic crew, among them glamourous stars and models, astronaut Sally Ride, Julius Caeser, Pontius Pilate, the original Madonna, Apollo and Daphne, Bacchus, figure from Ingres, pop-art women in underwear, Warhols ubiquitous Marilyn, and others in this highly designed mixed media composite, placing them in a wild panoply amidst scattered sunflowers, feathers and flowers.

Whether drawing from Judeo-Christian or pagan sources, St.Lewis concocts a witches brew.  Indeed , the cast of characters in this symbol-laden jambalaya is as diverse as a politically correct committee. And this fecund garden is as redolent with signs as a Bangkok street scape.

Appropriating imagery from high and low art to populate his Eden, St. Lewis incorporates found objects and common symbols in the manner of the early Cubists, juxtaposing human forms with scraps of musical notes, ribbons of Asian calligraphy, and the image of an Ankh.  While some of these collages strive too hard to be consciously avant-garde,  others gleam with an intelligent irony that is hard to resist.  In the Nagasaki Annunciation, slivers of Asian calligraphy intermingle with feather and musical notes as they fan out like a halo around a western gods' head.

St.Lewis' obsessively detailed frames, gold painted and leafed, often with elaborate mats provide a setting that matches the atmosphere of campy decadence in the work itself, pungent with a sweet over-ripe fragrance, recalling pictures hanging in an Edwardian boudoir.

There is something vaguely promiscuous about this polyglot assortment of pagen and priest, modern history and ancient mythology. Isn't something lost when everything has the same level of importance?  On television, commercials for cars and detergent are transmitted at the same decibel level as news about suicide bombings.  In this display the face of 1950's icon Marilyn Monroe is places alongside a reference to Nagasaki.  Although some images evoke sublime or horrific moments, others are mundane and trivial, His world of icons is a democratic world, All is fetish.

Marcel Duchamp casts a long shadow over St.Lewis, and a strong flavor of Dada and Surrealism spices this work, with aftertastes of Ernst and Magritte. In his best work, witty in-jokes and visual puns enrich St. Lewis' well groomed iconic icons, but the weaker pieces don't rise abover very clever graphic design.

The canvases in Sex in the Garden, lack the disciplined sparkle and obvious genius of the smaller  pieces and seemed forced or hasty.  The smaller work is composed of neatly layered images with an eye to precision and detail.  Intimately scared collages such as the sensuous Sun King, range in size from 12" to 24" and generally sandwich layers of glass and acetate film as vehicles for photo transfers, etchings, painting and applied collage.  Images of feather, flowers, and wings on these surfaces overlap and interact with the faces and figures in unpredictable tableaux, creating an intimacy that does not translate as well to the large scale paintings.

With  playfulness as an ever-present undercurrent, St. Lewis resists plumbing the easy depth of Gothic horror, preferring to skate on the surface of witty decadence.  While the work could be easily criticized as being too decorative, there is a knowledgeable manipulation of symbols and images from art and literature which markedly increases the viewing pleasure.  In the cultivated manner of a tasteful dandy, St. Lewis pushes style to the extreme, teasing  rather than assaulting the viewers senses.

N&O Review of Louis St.Lewis

Critic's Pick
Michelle Natale on the best art

Lee Hansley Gallery in Raleigh  rings in the new year with a solo show of  works by pop-baroque artist Louis St.Lewis, an eponymous exhibition subtitled, "Bad boy of the Southern Art Scene".  After recent sold out shows in Mougin, France, San Francisco and New Orleans and a hiatus of several years from showing locally, our very own enfant terrible promises a mini-retrospective that includes the cross dressed  "Persephone" which set off a media frenzy at 19993's Artsplosure and 2002's Jessica Lynch portrayed as the center of a sunflower.

The featured attraction is St.Lewis's collaboration with Sean Yseult ( aka Raleigh native Shauna Reynolds) bassist of the group White Zombie, " 12 Inches of fame."  Collage portraits based on the rock 'n' roll scene, created with Yseults photographs and St.Lewis' great eye for graphic design, combined in a a tondo format- vinyl records ( remember those?) reprising their summer showing at New York's famous CBGB nightclub.

Expect St.Lewis' classic plexiglass portraits, which layer faces with gold leaf, drawn marks and collage elements wittily referencing art history.  A series of three-dimensional assemblages, part Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois " personages" and Marisol, with a healthy dose of African nkisi references ( spiked nail heads haloing the images) and voodoo symbols thrown in, will fill another room.

St. Lewis' most recent works are striking computer-generated images printed on canvas, altering 19th century portraits with the addition of wreaths of roses, heart shaped locks and subtly surreal motifs. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thomas W. Jones essay on Louis St.Lewis

Louis St.Lewis is a compelling young artist from Chapel Hill, North Carolina who, over the course of the past few years has gained considerable exposure and recognition for a wide range of creative endeavors including painting, sculpture and collage.  In a departure from his earlier reliefs and assemblage works which relied on actual dimensional objects for their symbolic report, his new series of  transfer paintings on canvas and glass employ photocopied images to similar effect.

St.Lewis is one of a number of artists working today with a fascination for the past.  His works generally play off classic Greek and Roman mythological themes which he subverts and updates to address a range of contemporary issues.  His style is an eclectic mix of expressionism and pop, figuration and abstraction, narrative and decoration - combining fragments of diverse source materials - which, when removed from their original context and placed within his work, take on new often symbolic meaning.

The principle characters in these works are such mythological figures as : Mars, Venus, Athena, Icarus and Daedalus, Cupid and Psyche or biblical personages such as Madonna and Gabriel.  Other works pay homage to art historical interpretations of mythological themes by old master painters like David, Ingres and Bouguereau.   One only need read titles to realize their allegorical import:  " The Three Graces",  " The Rebirth of Venus",  "The Annunciation", " Madonna of the Rolex", and " The Judgement of Paris".

St. Lewis recognizes that to understand the present, you must know the past.  His works are a pointed reminder that myths are the story of our quest through the ages for meaning and truth; and that mythology can provide clues to the problems and issues we face as a society today.  Although mythology has not been believed for centuries, its moral, intellectual and ethical underpinning make up our human system of beliefs. The problem is that people have forgotten how to use myths.  According to the philosopher, Joseph Campbell, " it used to be that  these stories were in the minds of people. When it's in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life".  For St.Lewis, mythology is the guidepost in his own search for answers; and while each work makes clear reference  to the source from which they are drawn, the stories are rescripted to satisfy his own fantasies and interests.  These range from social commentary ( one constant these is the contradictory values at work within contemporary society) - to often comic self- referential musings on immortality, (fame) metamorphosis and rebirth.

St.Lewis' approach to painting is broad quick and bold.  Figures are loosely fleshed out, followed by the multiple layering of images and paint.  His technique often involves printing objects and media imagery onto clear acetate which he transfers to his surfaces by applying  " gel-medium" - an acrylic  polymer with broad  art applications.  The resulting image is the equivalent of a black line drawing with all the clarity of representation one would expect from a photo-mechanical process.  Transfer printing is a fast direct way of working that mimics the slick graphic look of screen painting without all the time consuming steps.  " Artists don't have time to learn to draw" the artist recently explained " There are too many parties to go to, who has time to paint?  I assure you if Leonardo Da Vinci were alive he would use a computer.  And didn't Warhol show us over 50 years ago that all you need is a machine?  Paint ruins my manicure".

Characteristically, the paintings in this exhibit are comprised of either a central figure, portrait head, or group of figures, frontally posed against abstract backgrounds.  The faces of the figures are transfer images as are most of the objects of adornment. Recurrent motifs of flowers feathers and butterflies crown the heads or float freely in space alongside images appropriated from art history books or arcane literary sources.  Vivid colors, applied with a deliberate expressionistic bravado, liven the images and serve to underscore the artists carefree attitude towards the activity of painting.

St.Lewis is a storyteller who's narrative is expressed symbolically.   Many of his symbols are reiterated over the span of a number of works with others specific to individual paintings.   His vocabulary of symbols  have both private and universal meaning.  The butterfly is the traditional symbol of transformation; as is the lilly a symbol of purity.   For the artist, feathers signify pure thought, inspiration or mental activity; while water represents events that individuals have no control over.  Fragments of foreign alphabets, anatomical drawings, 16th century lunar calendars and the like are symbolic of " knowledge lost" or " lessons from the past that are not learned".  Even the figures can be seen as a metamorphic symbolization of the artist himself.  It's surely no coincidence that the artists own features appear as a constant in more than a few of these works.

As  St.Lewis has been inspired by ancient history, so has he come under the aegis of various art historical doctrines and movements. The 19th century symbolist painters have been particularly  important in his development of his approach to color and form and how these elements function as a language to elicit meaning.  His love of the Baroque has inspired not only his excessiveness, but also his penchant for decoration and allegory.  From the surrealists he salvages the idea that  myth and fantasy are devices to unlock fundamental truths.  The influence of Pop art has also been strong on St. Lewis' development.  His interest in appropriated  images, commercial art techniques  and preference for high keyed colors- raspberry red, lemon yellow, aqua blue- are more than reminiscent of Andy Warhol's expressionistic portrait style of the 1970's.  St. Lewis also shares much in common with his post-modern contemporaries.  In particular those artists for whom myths and allegory are the means to bring together the ancient and modern.

Other influences stem, not from the history of art, but from the world of glamour and popular culture - and like Warhol, St.Lewis is as much at home with a copy of Vanity Fair as he is with art history books.

For St.Lewis, mythology is the perfect idiom to explore a range of issues while at the same time, having a little fun with process and tradition.  Sometimes irreverent, often witty, always quixotic, his art speaks directly to our  contemporary sensibility.  His unique vision is balanced between the past and the present, a posturing that Andy Warhol described upon seeing St.Lewis' work as " It's like Hieronymous Bosch Meets MTV".   If we are slightly unaware of the message, that's alright because these works have as much to do with mystery, ambiguity and innuendo, as they do with the ability to instruct,  challenge and reunite us with our mythological past. 

Thomas W. Jones
Executive Director
Museum of the Southwest