Imaginative paintings at Ely House
John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven, (203) 624-8055
Uneasy Prospects: Paintings by Nathan Lewis, Sabrina Marques, and Christopher Mir
Jan. 27—Mar. 2, 2008
Uneasy Prospects is a great show at the John Slade Ely House that features works by a trio of superb young local painters. Christopher Mir, Sabrina Marques and Nathan Lewis each combine an interest in figurative expression with personal narrative expression. While I have written about Mir and Marques previously (see this post for links), this was my introduction to Nathan Lewis' paintings. They are very impressive.
The show features four large oils by Marques that were part of her show in Real Art Ways' Real Room last year. These are fanciful allegorical works inspired by stories handed down by relatives who fled Castro's Cuba. "Parlamento (Parliament)" features a trio of owls in a lush wood. In an interview with me last year for an article in The Arts Paper, Marques told me that the painting was born out of a desire to paint birds. In her research, Marques learned that a group of owls is termed a "parliament." Recalling relatives' stories about the neighborhood watchdog groups in Cuba alert to potential counter-revolutionary activity, Marques envisioned the owls as spies, their eyes following viewers no matter where one stands.
There are also four smaller gouache works by Marques in the show. Where her oil paintings cover their surface—vibrant and underwater in "Me Voy Solo" and verdant and forested in "Parlamento"—her gouache works situate the figures and a few props in uncluttered open space. There is more than a tinge of children's literature macabre in some of these. In "Johnson VT," a mating buck and doe are caught between three dogs and a hunter with a bow and arrow. The three dogs wear luminous orange camo hunting vests; the hunter sports a similarly colored cap. While the buck mounts the doe, oblivious, the hunter has his arrow lined up and bow drawn. No Cupid, he.
Chris Mir just had a show last fall at the Wadsworth Atheneum. But he's been burning the midnight oil in his studio, coming up with a whole new set of paintings for this show. Mir is creating his own mythological universe. It is populated with symbols of nature, magic, representations of technology, primal man and innocent girls and encroaching corporate forms and structures.
I was particularly taken with the color choices in the long horizontal work "Field Ritual." In the foreground, two young girls are seated in a field of pink and purple flowers. Behind them stands a bearded man in a robe, Mir's wanderer or hippie figure. Glowing yellow orbs hover around both him and the girls, Mir's depiction of magic. An airliner soars upward in the sky on the right. It is a blue-tinged dusk. Floodlights on a high pole behind the wanderer figure light the field. The lights are the same color as the glowing magic orbs, leading me to wonder if Mir was postulating an equation "technology/electricity=magic."
Like Mir, Nathan Lewis has his repertory company of imagery. In Lewis' case, there's a bit of a pop art sensibility, crossed with postmodernism, to his energetic compositions. He has scavenged imagery from old Life magazines as well as appropriating more recent iconic imagery. In both "Comedy of Eras", a big five-paneled acrylic painting, and "Are We Not Men" (a smaller graphite and acrylic work on birch panel named after a Devo album), Lewis faithfully renders the historic image of a Frenchman tearing up as the Nazis occupy Paris. The late punk rock guitarist Johnny Ramone, legs apart and furiously strumming his low-slung Mosrite, appears in both "Comedy of Eras" and "Strange Fruit." Lattice-like oil derricks recur regularly as do looming expanses of rock and piles of urban rubble. A wild-eyed ram's head reappears in several paintings. On his blog, Lewis details his themes: "the end of the oil era, the will to power, the instability in representations of masculinity, the tension and overlap of religion to art and politics, the seemingly unrelated lives of the masses to their idols."
He has dazzling technique. There is evident command of the acrylic colors. He has a gift for imbuing his figures with life, a talent most evident in the amazing "Till We Find the Blessed Isles Where Our Friends Are Dwelling." This large painting, which unfortunately had to be removed from the show early because Lewis had it placed in a show in New York, is based on Emmanuel Leutze's famous "George Washington Crossing the Delaware," or, as Lewis put it, a "remix." Lewis had put out a call for models to submit photos from throughout the Internet-accessible world. In the end, however, he populated the wooden boat, which is being rowed upstream against churning rapids, with a cast of friends and acquaintances he photographed locally. Unlike Washington's boat full of white men, Lewis' painting reflects "the diversity of gender, race, sexuality, politics, and technology that defines the country now," according to a statement on the blog he maintained for the project.
While "The Blessed Isles" is no longer on display in the show, the rest of Lewis' work is well worth checking out as are the paintings by Mir and Marques.