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