Clotted with paint, stapled or glued together in sections so that they are as patched and dog-eared as an old map, Stanley Lewis’s observational paintings and drawings depict the small-town middle-class world familiar to readers of John Updike’s fiction. A shaggy tree towers over an old house, and small pines are planted in rows alongside the stucco wall of a one-story shop. Most of the works are unpeopled, but human presence is felt in such things as lawn furniture.
Sunfish sailboats rest lakeside along with multicolored canoes in Boat on the Beach, Lake Chautauqua (2013), which is accompanied by four oil sketches of the same view. In Backyard Jeckyl Island, GA (2014), an outdoor table and chairs, a palm tree and a latticework fence provide the foci. One is easily entranced by the colorful little squares seen through the openings in the latticework. Although these squares depict what lies in the distance, they are painted more thickly than the fence framing them and, up close, seem to float like candies on a brown ground. A similar reversal happens in the quick oil sketches with the specks of sky seen through treetops. In the larger, more slowly worked paintings, however, Lewis pulls the branches over and through the thick paint of the sky. Loads of reddish pigment pervade the dark green foliage—a reminder of the richness of observation, which the artist seems to revel in.
Cars, clouds and shadows move, but Lewis tackles that painter’s problem without the eye-deceiving abbreviations beloved by John Singer Sargent and Fairfield Porter. Unlike Catherine Murphy, he eschews fine-haired brushes and glazes in favor of chunky daubs of paint. There’s a joyful stubbornness in his method, so seemingly unsuited to the pursuit of capturing all the details. To make his approach even more quixotic, his motifs are enormously complicated. In Winslow Park, Westport (2010-14), Lewis takes on a street intersection. The top half of the composition shows two dozen power lines stretched between four utility poles, while the bottom half is given over to ever-so-slightly differentiated shrubs and grasses and a cast-iron fence, which spans the painting’s width. Each power line’s thickness and hook-up to the utility pole is articulated, and the gray, green and blue spaces seen through the fence posts resolutely portray the color variations in asphalt, cement and signage beyond.
Lewis’s drawings have always been my favorite works of his. Like many of the pieces in the show, his big pencil drawing of a hemlock tree, measuring almost 5 by 6 feet, is composed of many sheets of paper. Glued on top of each other, they create a palpable density, from which Lewis scrapes out chunks of paper to represent the whitish spaces of snow and sky seen through graphite-darkened branches.
Three renditions of a snowy yard, two in ballpoint and one in pen and ink, show him translating the scene with slight shifts in framing, angle and light. The frenetic intensity he brings to capturing this hushed suburban landscape is deeply humbling. The light will fade quickly, and he must catch it while he can.