Picture book: Nathan Lewis reads the ruins
West Cove Studio Gallery
30 Elm St., West Haven, (203) 627-8030
Nathan Lewis: Reading the Ruins
Collapsing. Falling apart. The great industrial engine of the American economy increasingly decaying into ruin. Or let that be "ruins," plural. And in that desolation, some artists find visual inspiration.
One example of this was in the Anna Held Audette retrospective at the John Slade Ely House this past May. Audette concentrated on industrial sites and machinery as formal objects. Commentary was implicit and the art historical reference traced its lineage back to 18th and 19th Century painters who depicted ruins of ancient Greek and Roman antiquity. For the most part, Audette's paintings were industrial landscapes without a figurative presence.
In Nathan Lewis' painting show, Reading the Ruins, which closed this past weekend at A-Space Gallery in West Haven, the human element is present. The show features five large paintings, two smaller ones and four rough studies. In Lewis' paintings, people seem almost tourists of desolation, wandering dazed through factory rubble ("Orpheus") or stooping to pick up a small hardcover book off a detritus-strewn floor ("Book Keeper"). In "Light is the Lion That Comes Down to Drink," a bespectacled middle-aged man—seen through rusted diagonals of collapsed metal beams—carries what might be a piece of wood, a souvenir, in his right hand.
The backlit figure in "In the Dark"—not easily identifiable as a woman or man—reaches into a hole in a riven, peeling wall, searching for who knows what. The floor is strewn with debris and the old brick walls, painted white, are tagged with red and black graffiti. Lewis zeroes in on a tight cluster of seven upturned faces in the smaller painting "War Bells." The group—which includes local painters Paul Panamarenko and Larry Morelli as well as Anne Somsel, wife of art critic and curator Stephen Vincent Kobasa, and their daughter Claire—looks up at something outside the frame.
Hanging over these works is a sense of impersonal forces at work with the people in these spaces contemplating what has happened to their world. In fact, the only painting in which there is a real sense of active agency is "I Burn Today." In this work, the foregrounded figure—seen from waist down in torn blue jeans and sneakers—holds a kerosene can in their left hand (which has black-painted fingernails). Impersonal economic forces may have set in motion the demise of this factory but one individual can put the final nail in the coffin.
Lewis, who came to the gallery while I was visiting, says he has always been intrigued by these kinds of industrial ruins. He created the series as a challenge to himself to figure out how to depict this type of urban landscape. The results are exceptional. There is a tactile sense of the forms, capturing the feel of brick, rust, metal, wood and clusters of pink insulation material.
And the light. In "Light is the Lion That Comes Down to Drink," Lewis apprehends the nature of the foreground light—both the direct light coming down through holes in the ceiling, splashing on debris, and the surrounding diffuse light on the floor. Lewis tells me that seeing light as he hasn't seen it before is exciting. Similarly, in "Gate Keeper" (the large version), Lewis renders the subtle light in an essentially dark space; it is a painting primarily of shadow detail.
This series captures both a historical moment in late industrial capitalism and our response to that moment. Like the figures inside the frame, we absorb a certain kind of catastrophic beauty in these paintings like deer in the headlamps. Something is bearing down on us and it isn't good. But these paintings are. Very.