Shock of the Old 

William Lewis at J Crist Gallery

On September 7, J Crist Gallery kicked off the 2006-2007 season with a bang, bringing in an exciting show of impressive work by a rarely seen artist. Certainly it is the liveliest art to appear in a local gallery for some time after a stretch of mostly humdrum fare in Boise. The monumental canvases and bright, dynamic works on paper by painter William Lewis are unlike anything else you've seen before. Word was out that this long-awaited debut solo exhibit by the 40-year-old artist would be something to see, and consequently, it was no surprise the place was mobbed that night.

Lewis' carefully executed, eccentric paintings completely commandeer the high-ceilinged shrine to minimalist design and aesthetic idealism. His intelligent yet lowbrow, subtly subversive imagery shakes up the purity of the space and makes it hum. (Philip Guston would have been pleased.) Just over 100 oils and gouaches ranging from mural size down to post-card scale capture a unique vision that relishes the strange presence and expressiveness of mundane, obscure and obsolete objects and images, from illustrations in medieval texts to antiquated advertising to discarded manufactured implements that are out of use, yet not entirely out of mind. Lewis recognizes the part these visual memories play in our collective consciousness and knows how to push buttons with them. Whereas before I experienced the large canvases unstretched and within the crowded confines of Lewis' studio, at J Crist, they had an even greater presence and vitality as a show.

A fanciful abstract style is also an important element in Lewis' art. Particularly in his smaller works on paper, brightly colored arabesques, biomorphic forms and abstracted body parts swim about, seemingly unattached yet somehow in touch with each other, too. Disembodied hands, arms and facial features can be in the mix as well. Altogether, it makes for a Miro-esque surrealism but one less fantastic, more pedestrian--what visiting critic James Trainor accurately described as an "offhand surrealism."

The main gallery space houses five large canvases, and it is a dramatic display. Green Rag occupies a wall all to itself. It is an iconic work, summing up as it does so much of Lewis' aesthetic. Its ambiguous setting is defined by broad planes of color. The seemingly disparate objects lounge comfortably, as if hanging out together in the family room. Lewis embeds an interesting element of time in this painting, as he does in others. The inanimate rag and section of pipe are confronted by a pale whirling dervish of a form whose ghostly appearance and aura give it the look of an apparition from an anonymous past. Meanwhile, flatly painted blue ellipses, a common motif in Lewis' compositions, serve to snap us back into the present. It is a subtly powerful painting that holds us in its grasp.

On the opposite end of the room, Atomizer 2 is a large-scale still life of sorts that might have been titled Homage to Phil, so much does it embody the spirit of Guston's late work. The image of the atomizer as a 20th century feminine artifact seems to fascinate Lewis as much as the steak that is also prominent in this piece, and which can be seen as emblematic of a certain American male ritual from the same period. But beyond this duality, the way the slab of red meat on the wood plank is rendered is the epitome of that crude American physicality that Guston celebrated in paint and that Lewis captures so well. The painting has an R. Crumb, countercultural demeanor that goes to the heart of Lewis' sympathies and stirs ours.

The vertical Below and Above is a beautifully painted, semi-abstract work. Against a field of glowing earth tones are isolated, vaguely recognizable objects and simple abstractions painted in dark brown, connoting, no doubt, our mundane, street-level existence, and above which soars a mysteriously exotic arabesque painted in a deep blue, a transcendent form evoking a higher realm of being. I have admired this painting since I first saw it in the artist's studio, for the way its far-flung parts work so well together. However, it has undergone a change. Originally, the center of the arabesque was a solid deep blue, but is now an electric mixture of bright white and light blue that grabs your eye no matter where you look, overpowering the rest of the work. But it is still one of the best in the show.

Eyes and Ears is another wonderfully painted canvas, the accomplished gestural handling and build-up of the blues, greens and whites setting off a gnarly-looking stump with strange protrusions. It is also his most Miro-like creation on view in its striving toward pictorial poetry with golden, feathery arabesques and various organic surrealist notations floating in an immaterial space.

Lewis' most recent painting, Woodpile, is another Guston-esque work both in its choice of subject and its humor. It is a somewhat different piece, suggesting a move toward incorporating landscape settings into his imagery. Still, it is a great composition with its crisscrossing lengths of wood punctuated with the bright ovals of the cut log-ends, his stained painter's rag blowing above the disarray like a defiant banner. Unfortunately, most of you will never see it. Thanks to the insensitivity of the folks who bought it, after the opening, Woodpile was taken down and hauled off to its new home, thereby denying the artist's newfound public their one brief chance to enjoy it. It was replaced by the flatly painted 2 Steaks which is simply not as good as its predecessor.

The multitude of framed and unframed works on paper covering an entire wall and more was an exhibit unto itself, and apparently the most popular part of the show. Many of them are fascinating, and all reasonably priced. The mid-sized gouaches like White Forms and Fire kept drawing me to them with the former's very graphic, improbable-looking organic abstraction which appeared to be made of white burlap stuffed with straw, and the latter's heat-intensive waves of color. Chop Saw, rendered in blue gouache on a folded-out cardboard box is a cross between rust-belt industrial hardware and James Castle's rural resourcefulness.

Many of the unframed small works were equally intense and strange, featuring an entertaining assortment of surreal, abstract and mystifying, semi-familiar forms and images, a number of which were intensely graphic or done on text and other printed materials. Vivid and idiosyncratic, we recognize in this art a probing intellect, yet cannot help wondering sometimes what goes on in the mind of William Lewis.

William D. Lewis' "As Below So Above" will be on display through Oct. 7 at J Crist Gallery, 223 S. 17th St., 336-2671.

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