Lee Lewis, in the Moment
by Hannah Serrano
Portfolio Weekly 06/26/07

The life and Works of once-acclaimed Portsmouth artist Lee Lewis are the focus of a new exhibition in Ghent.

The Persian poet Omar Khayyam once wrote, “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Much later, Joni Mitchell sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” Art exists for many reasons – to inspire and to provoke, to show us who we are and to startle us with the possibility of how we could be, to provide escape and to tell the truth. At the heart of all these things, however, is the innate human need to capture the world around us as it slips away with each dying moment.

The art of Lee Lewis is wholehearted in this endeavor. Though a well regarded member of the New York art scene in the 1950’s, arguably the most fertile period of artistic American achievement, Lewis persistently painted images of humble life in the romantic Norfolk and the brilliantly hued Portsmouth of his youth. Beginning this Saturday, a selection of 24 paintings by Lee Lewis (1926-1954), will be on display and for sale at Lorrie Saunders’ ArtGallery, located, fittingly, in Historic Ghent.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Lewis grew up in Portsmouth from the age of 12 and attended Woodrow Wilson High School. After a two-year service in the Navy, his formal art training began locally, under the tutelage of artist Lindsay Ocheltree of Norfolk, and continued at the Art Center in Los Angeles, from which he graduated. Lewis then made his way to New York City, where he landed in Greenwich Village, the historic enclave of the avant-garde. In a short time, the young artist quickly garnered national attention, finding representation from established Village galleries, participating in numerous art exhibitions, and receiving several coveted awards including the grand prize at the 43rd annual Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in Greenwich Village and the Julius Hallgarten Award in Oils from the National Academy of Design. Lewis was preparing a solo show by invitation from Le Gallerie 25 in Paris when he suddenly fell ill with an unknown condition. Within a week, Lewis was dead. He was 27 years old.

Upon his untimely death, the wealth of Lewis’ work was bequeathed to his parents and siblings. After years of storage and disregard, Lewis’ brother, Walter, then passed on his share of the art to his neighbor, Johanna Heath, ten years ago. Recognizing the potential value of the paintings, Heath came to Lorrie Saunders earlier this year to take a look at these forgotten works of art.

“We were unearthing these things from this outdoor shed in the pouring rain,” Sunders told me, when I spoke to her in the gallery. “It was really like finding hidden treasure.” Remarkably, the paintings required little more restoration than a gentle cleaning of accumulated dirt. In fact, most of the works in the show will be exhibited in their original frames.

Although Lewis matured artistically in the time and place of Abstract Expressionism, his work does not follow the pure abstraction and grand scale of contemporaries like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Lewis’ style was instead representational; however, his is a vibrant, color-soaked realism that is underscored by expressive brushstrokes, rich detail and subtle abstraction. This intensity of color, which is surprisingly just as evident in the watercolors as it is in the oils, is quieted by the subject matter – dilapidated houses, unassuming doorways, and worn-down storefronts, punctuated by meticulous consideration to details such as signage, posters, brickwork, and graffiti. Lewis’ eye is fixed on the peripheral spaces of daily life. He brings into our view scenes of Norfolk, Portsmouth, in Greenwich Village that recall a bygone era, at the moment that these edifices were transitioning into the obsolete. He is very much a historian in that he insists we take a second look at these places and objects that are caught in between past and present before they are eternally lost in the sweep of time. In the program accompanying a retrospective of his work by the Norfolk Museum (now the Chrysler), in the year of his death, Lewis’ choice of color and subject matter are poignantly described: “He knows how to intensify the contrasts of a sonorous indigo to a bright yellow or to the varying hues of saturated red, often interwoven with passages of green. He explores intimately the oddities of petty things: here a spot in the wall, a sign, there some fragments of a ragged poster, different planks in a fence, or a trashcan… [It is] a peculiar fantasy of reality, rooted in the irrationality of the passing and deceasing life. In Lewis’ paintings buildings and trivial things are transformed as to animated and personalized beings. They become symbols of the “Human Comedy.” In these buildings and trivial things, Lewis adopts and reworks the vanitas style, a device in which artist throughout history have used symbols of time, such as bubbles, rotting fruit, smoke, or hourglasses, to remind us of the brevity and transience of life and the suddenness of death.

UNDOUBTEDLY, Lewis’ distinct style was informed by the diverse artists working in and around his own time. His aggressive use of primary colors and stylization my be the only design principles that relate to Pollock’s pourings of paint, Rothko’s luminous color blocks, and de Kooning’s smeared abstractions. Where he parts ways with the Abstract Expressionists, he finds commonality with fellow realists such as Edward Hopper and Maurice Utrillo. With Hopper, whose work is currently on display in a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Lewis shares the imperative of capturing the slower, less forceful element of New York City life. Hopper’s famous painting Early Sunday Morning, 1930, portrays an old building often overlooked by passersby. Like Lewis, Hopper pays extraordinary attention to the prosaic details of his storefronts, signage, fire hydrant and barbershop pole.

“The shops [in Early Sunday Morning] are gone now,” he lamented later. With Hopper’s masterpiece, Nighthawks, 1942, Lewis’ work shares a vague sense of “social alienation and disenfranchisement,” as Saunders pointed out to me. Truly, solitary figures leaning out of Lewis’ windows share the anonymity and lonesomeness of Hopper’s late-night diners and office workers. And while Hopper’s work tends toward film noir, Lewis shares with Utrillo an urgent need to record the city around him. Utrillo’s images of street corners and buildings in Montmartre and Paris are clear counterparts to Lewis’ depictions of Greenwich Village, Portsmouth, and Norfolk. One might even suggest that Lewis was inspired by the posters and text heavy art of Toulouse-Lautrec, Utrillo’s fore-runner as well as contemporary and mentor of his mother, Suzanne Valadon.

Lee Lewis’ own work anticipates the site-specific art of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, which attempted to capture structures in the midst of transition and the fleeting nature of things man-made. For instance, Robert Smithson’s work of the period dealt with the erosion of buildings and the ideas of entropy and irreversible change. Another site-specific artist, Gordon Matta-Clark, was known for literally cutting holes into buildings and buying up derelict real estate to call attention to these forlorn structures.

Driving this call for historical preservation is a sense that Lewis wants us to not forget who we are and how we came to be. And he held himself to that as well, consistently returning home to Virginia to paint some other odd gas station or bank of mailboxes. Indeed, the painting that won him the grand prize in the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibition, Southern Mood, 1952, was of a decrepit yellow building that stood on the corner of Charlotte Street and Monticello Avenue in Norfolk. So, in its own way, this exhibition at ArtGallery fulfills Lewis’ directive, by celebrating an artist who reminds us in his art of who we are as Virginians and Americans, whose work was nearly lost to time and degradation in a woodshed in Portsmouth, whose tragically short life is a reminder to be present and active in our own, whose brief but prolific career and brilliant paintings make us take notice of the world around us at this moment in time and how beautiful it is. After all, as Joni warned us back then, we’d pave paradise to put up a parking lot.