It's A Family A-Fire 

New works by William Lewis at NNU

Boise artist William Lewis loves what he calls the mystery of painting, by which he means he is never sure where it is going to take him next. Sometimes a grouping on one subject will lead him into another, or in the course of working out a visual idea, the medium speaks to him and draws him elsewhere.

This, to a large degree, accounts for his impressive output and the diversity of subjects and techniques that make up his oeuvre. His new paintings at Northwest Nazarene University's Friesen Gallery combine family history, and a deep interest in the history of things and the endless process of change.

This current body of oils on canvas is entitled "The Burn Pile Series." You can see one from this series at Boise Art Museum's 2010 Idaho Triennial where Lewis' The Next Morning won a merit award. It offers a good idea of what to expect at his solo exhibition at NNU. They are paintings that, as is his wont, depict an ordinary situation in a way that reveals his expressionist powers and romantic persuasion, evoking physical sensations, mental associations and universal themes. They constitute some of Lewis' best work to date.

The series is a narrative of sorts, inspired by the semiannual ritual on his family's farm in Alabama in which the accumulated debris of rural life is pushed into a huge pile and torched. It's a perennial family affair, the various stages of which he has documented with snapshots. It is a conflagration that takes days to burn and weeks--maybe a month--for the smoldering mass to die out. Each stage of this process of fiery decomposition is treated differently by Lewis, who alters his technique to capture the essence of the moment.

In the first two paintings at Friesen Gallery, Lewis sets the stage and the season of this drama. If you consider farm equipment pushing together debris in an outdoor setting conventional landscape, then Tractor is the most traditional painting of the lot. But this is not an attempt at the sublime. The substantial earthiness that has long informed Lewis' art is evident here. The chill white sky, low light and barren vegetation all peg the seasonal setting as winter, and there is a damp brownness to the scene, highlighted by the red of the tractor and white debris. The Pile, with its pre-burn close-up of the awaiting garbage, is painted in a flat, blue-gray palette that looks monochromatic in the shadows of approaching night. It has the somber feel of an eminent existential experience.

Lewis' large tondo painting, Night Fire, is both the centerpiece of this narrative and the image that kicks his subject into elemental drama. His first shot at a circular canvas, it is a composition of light-and-dark contrasts and reflections. Dominated by the immense fire at its height, its intense light (and heat) turns the figures standing watch into glowing coals and reflects off the body of water in the foreground with red-tinged smoke staining the night sky. The scene is Vulcan-esque, an inferno that dwarfs mere mortals. Lewis reveals himself as a romanticist in the vein of J.M.W. Turner when he describes the scene as "a source of terrible awe and great exhilaration."

Five of the paintings that follow Night Fire capture the various stages of the fire's aftermath during which red-hot embers slowly die and lingering flames fade out. There is an aura of desolation in several of these, with white skies echoing the thick white smoke and ashes covering the ground like dirty snow.

The most dramatic of these is the imposing Medusa, which is the largest piece in the exhibit and, outside of Night Fire, the most compelling in its execution and associations. It is almost a work of abstract expressionism given Lewis' vigorous application of pigment pinned together with interwoven linear forms, and an edge-to-edge composition. But it is also a haunting scene, evoking an immolation site. In the center, a blackened round mass resembling a giant head lies next to the remnant of a collapsible draftsman's lamp which reaches up like skeletal remains in rigor mortis. Lewis can induce our imagination to run away with us.

Medusa and several other paintings here are reminiscent of German artist Anselm Kiefer's considerations of "Blut und Boden" (Blood and Soil) German culture in multimedia paintings like The World-Ash. Lewis' art is of a similar historical sensibility and caliber.

The last painting in the exhibit stands out for different reasons. Relic is a breath of fresh air after the images that precede it. It is a painting about renewal and moving on. A couple of rusted, bent metal objects that the flames could not consume sit on the ground in warm sunlight waiting for recycling, with greening vegetation in the background. Winter is over and so is the fiery ritual of which these leftovers are a relic. One of the most appealing aspects of Lewis' art is the way he instills such throw-away objects with character, even personality. In a way they represent a continuity with the past and the future. A lead-in to a sequel series perhaps?

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