John Lees’s flat is a sloped-ceiling allowance on the top attic of his comfortable farmhouse in upstate New York. His cat curls up on the sofa; scrapbooks and sketchbooks band the shelves, an old agenda table is acclimated for drawing. He paints at an board affiliated from his grandfather; his annal and turntables, as able-bodied as paintings from his art academy days, are aural reach. Amid an art apple bedeviled on assignment that’s fresh, current, unlabored, and angel based, Lees makes art that is craggy, built-up, thread-bare, and mysterious.
Lees has a wry, self-deprecating faculty of humor; he can do pitch-perfect impressions of his friends, family, and actors of the 1930s. He throws out ancient expressions for banana relief, and to carriage us to a altered time and place. A music lover and cinephile, his credibility of advertence are unexpected, and not of this moment.
Humor and pop ability references accord Lees’s assignment absurdity — as do bursts of high-keyed blush beyond aching surfaces with impasto acrylic in low relief. Despite the actuality that he works on paintings for as continued as 30 years, they don’t arise ever precious. Instead, they assume animal and vulnerable. Several of Lees’s paintings accept been re-shown in assorted iterations over the years, anniversary time edited and re-worked. His capacity accommodate portraits in contour — which feel awful specific, alike if the babysitter is alien — as able-bodied as domiciliary altar like armchairs and a claw-foot bathtub, houses and people, animals and paths through the landscape. They accept a swirling, agitated activity that builds through the layers of paint. Lees is additionally accepted for his scroll-format drawings, which almanac circadian activity with his wife and their animals, and the beck in their backyard. These too may be re-worked over decades, and in them, like a diary, Lees annal dates, notes, the alteration of seasons, and passings.
John Lees was built-in in 1943 in Denville, New Jersey, and grew up in Los Angeles. He accustomed his BFA and MFA from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles (now Otis College of Art and Design). He has been announcement in New York aback 1977 and has been an adviser at the New York Flat Academy aback 1988. His assignment is represented in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan; the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Kemper Collection, Kansas City, Missouri; the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the New Museum, New York. He is represented by Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, area he has been the accountable of several abandoned exhibitions, best afresh in March to May 2021.
Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Los Angeles. As a adolescent or adolescent person, how did you get absorbed in art and art making?
John Lees: I was called afterwards my affectionate grandfather, Johann, who died afore I was born. He was built-in in Vienna, and he was a artisan and additionally a painter. Aback he came to this country, he was a music teacher, abbey organist, and choir master. I began painting at about age seven. Aback I was 10, I started accession the little Abrams art books. They amount 50 cents at the time, which was my allowance. I was generally told by my mother, “You are aloof like my ancestor — artistic, impractical.” I was accustomed boot orders, and I approved to alive up to them.
My ancestors lived alfresco of Westwood Village in Los Angeles. The adjacency was abutting to Beverly Hills and Bel Air, area all the blur bodies lived. We were in account to them; that’s how I came to see it: my mother accomplished Latin at a clandestine girls’ school, and my ancestor awash high-end cars. My ancestor was like Willy Loman in abounding ways. He ran amphitheater and cine houses in the 1920s and ’30s. I listened to him allocution all the time about a Golden Era.
As a teenager, the aboriginal affair I did in the morning was attending at the cine area of the newspapers. Aback the above studios reissued their 1930-1949 excess to television in 1957, that became the base of my life. I bethink aback I saw the 1930 blur Min and Bill, starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. It was like time travel. If it’s a cine fabricated amid 1930 and 1935, now we’re talking! If addition doesn’t apperceive who Norma Shearer was, what can I say?
I got a Max Factor architecture kit, and my hero was Lon Chaney. I acted out abstract movies of the 1920s and 1930s in my allowance able-bodied into aerial school. I would apprehend my ancestor talking to my mother and saying, “What’s amiss with the boy?” If I had anticipation of it, I ability accept said, “Have you looked at yourself in the mirror?” Decades later, I accomplished I was aggravating to be an acquiescent son by active an absurd activity in the Golden Era of my father’s recollections.
At the aforementioned time, I was painting. In 1960, I apparent jazz, Beat poetry, and Abstract Expressionism. It all came like a package. At the Dwan Gallery in Westwood, I could see Franz Kline and Larry Rivers. I started assuming my assignment in Beat coffeehouses aback I was 17.
JS: You advised at the Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. Can you acquaint me about that experience?
JL: In the boilerplate art apple of the time, to be able or actual meant actuality avant-garde. It was not able to be an ancient painter. However, Otis Art Institute in those canicule was a somewhat backward-looking place. They were anxious with authoritative abiding we knew how to foreshorten an arm and draw all the knuckles; Rico LeBrun was the adopted influence, and we didn’t appetite that.
I was aggravating to be like Red Grooms or Phillip Hefferton. It was affectionate of proto-punk and “anti-correct drawing.” In 1966, I fabricated the painting “Man Eating a Sandwich.” I ran into problems in academy because my assignment was apparent as tasteless and vulgar. Attractive back, though, my assignment was confused, as I was.
Barry Le Va and Bas Jan Ader were in my class, and were two of my abutting friends. Barry’s inventions with acquainted happened appropriate at school. I anticipate they afraid everyone. He would say, “I aloof appetite to coffin aggregate that came before.” He played the boxy guy and I was his banana sidekick.
Bas Jan admired the chat “implosion.” He after developed an abstraction that your life’s assignment could fit in a shoebox. Then, of course, he had the activity to booty a cruise by himself beyond the North Atlantic in a baby boat, and he never came back. I consistently admired to anticipate that he buried the draft and afflicted a altered identity. He hardly aggregate his added thoughts with me. Publicly, he was a abundant chic clown, a disrupter. Margaret Nielsen told me that Bas said I was one of his best friends. I’ve consistently acquainted accustomed by that.
For a continued time, I fabricated paintings of the courtyard of Otis Art Institute. But I don’t anticipate I charge to acrylic it anymore. I appetite it off my back.
JS: Several paintings in your 2021 exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery were anachronous over a 30-year period. Why is continuance and re-working absorbing to you as a painter?
JL: In the 1980s, aback I began authoritative images of my past, I had no way of alive that it would booty me 30 years to accomplishment some of those paintings. Jay DeFeo formed eight years on “The Rose” (1958-66), and I anticipation that was amazing. Eight accomplished years. I’ve been on my paintings like “Rhythm King” (1984-2020), which is a account of Bix Beiderbecke, and “House in Denville” (1976–2020) for so long. But why should I aloof say spiral it and alpha a new one? If I can accomplishment a painting that began in 1986 and it turns out to be a bigger painting, it’s like I’ve time traveled, and justified the time spent.
JS: I was cerebration about your painting “Slope II” (2001-21) in affiliation to the agitation of the mural in Soutine’s painting “Return from Academy Afterwards the Storm” (c. 1939). How has Soutine been cogent to you?
JL: At the end of the Charlie Chaplin blur Modern Times (1936), the branch worker, played by Chaplin, goes off arm in arm with the girl, played by Paulette Goddard, bottomward an accessible road. I anticipate of this in affiliation to the two Soutine paintings at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC: “Return from Academy Afterwards the Storm” and “Windy Day, Auxerre” (both c. 1939). In that period, 1936 to ’39, Europe was dangerous. That activity is in the painting. I adulation the backward aeon of Soutine’s work. I acclimated to feel apologetic for added painters of his time. They didn’t get to be Soutine. What’s the point?
By the aboriginal 1970s, I was absorbed in Italian painters of the 1920s and ’30s associated with expressionism and the Scuola Romana movement, like Gino Bonichi, accepted as Scipione, and Mario Mafai. Wonderful. I had a affair with Italy that I had to accumulate because of those painters.
JS: I additionally apprehend that the aboriginal 17th-century Dutch painter and printmaker Hercules Segers was affecting for you. How did you apprentice about his work?
JL: I knew about him by some aberrant accident. Abrams appear a big book on Nicolas de Staël, and at the end they reproduced prints of Hercules Segers. Go figure. I don’t apperceive what they were accomplishing there. In the 1980s I was apprehensive if I could acrylic the activity of the access of time. I was cerebration about a aphotic feeling, like you faculty in the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. I accustomed this activity aback I saw the assignment of Segers, and that afflicted my cartoon a lot. Aback you attending at Segers’s prints, it’s adamantine to accept they weren’t fabricated in the 20th century.
I additionally adulation the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso. I apparent him in the mid-1970s, in a book on Jasper Johns. Abutting to a reproduction of Johns’s adhesive carve “Flashlight III” (1958) was an angel of Rosso’s wax over adhesive carve “Baby Chewing Bread” (1892). It was like painting in three dimensions. Later, I acquainted Beuys was painting in three ambit with fat as Rosso was with wax.
I anticipate of art absolute in a ample time span, like a priesthood. As a adolescent person, you anguish about alone actuality a footnote. But delay a minute! A comment agency the art historians and the specialists are interested. That’s what it means.
JS: Would you say your interests are the artists who are alfresco of “the center” — the artists in the margins?
JL: Addition ability say, “If you appetite a assignment by the greatest painter of the 20th century, you would apparently appetite a Picasso.” I would say, “No, I wouldn’t appetite a Picasso.” Then they ability say, “Okay, I understand. I would apparently booty a Matisse myself.” I would say, “Well I like Rouault better. I like Morandi.” If you appetite to get bodies angry, you say, “I adopt Utrillo.”
I anticipate of Purvis Adolescent or William Hawkins as my contemporaries. If you attending at a Horace Pippin or the sculptures of William Edmundson, there is a actual claimed faculty of touch. A beheld artisan has his or her touch, like a artisan has his or her tone. You apperceive who’s playing. I’d adulation to be in a appearance with Purvis Young. I feel I can draft appropriate abutting to him.
JS: You’ve additionally maintained an absorption in Chinese advisers painting, and this is best anon apparent in your continued accumbent annal drawings, which characterize your activity upstate, and the landscape.
JL: Yes, I was admiring to Chinese advisers painting, and abnormally artists who began alive during the Qing Dynasty. I was absorbed in the egoistic artists like Zhu Da, and Gao Qipei, who developed his own appearance of feel painting. He activated ink with the tip of one feel and the ancillary of his hand. He grew one barb continued and breach it like a pen nib. I became added and added absorbed in the anchoress painters.
Earlier, during the Yuan Dynasty, afterward the Mongol conquest, abounding advisers were either not accustomed in government account or accustomed actual low-level appointments. So, the bigger affair was to abolish oneself. You accept article to offer, but they are not absorbed in it. Well, abolish yourself. I like that affectionate of attitude.
When I begin the book on Albert Pinkham Ryder by Lloyd Goodrich, I thought, “I could be like that.” I couldn’t see myself walking into offices and blame myself. Instead, I could alive activity like Ryder. It helped me.
JS: Aback alive over beforehand paintings, are you absorbed in adventitious painting occurrences that appear because of the apparent build-up?
JL: God, yes. For one thing, the apparent of the acrylic on the canvas is uneven. Aback I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, I had a canvas installed in the room. I asked the students, aback they bankrupt their palettes, to clean it on that canvas. I told them if they capital to try anything, to try it on that canvas. That was the “Grand Wiper.” But, in the third year, there was a apprentice who said he capital to piss anybody off. He came in with a can of gesso and corrective over the accomplished affair with white. I was activity to accumulate it as a memory, but instead, I removed all the gesso. It was adamantine to get it off, but I did.
I acclimated the canvas for one my paintings, “Fields in Umbria (Crazy Paradise).” If you attending at the ancillary of the painting, you can see that aggregate is on altered levels. Afore I sanded it, some areas were absolutely high. You could acrylic over all those things, but if you beach them bottomward you’ll see beforehand layers. Some of the acrylic is activity to abatement into crevices. Article that is afterpiece to you on the apparent may accept been corrective 10 years ago, and article that’s way bottomward beneath ability accept been corrective recently.
The canvas has its own life. I booty things bottomward with a aggregate of sandpaper, Murphy’s Oil Soap, and some of the beneath toxic, but additionally beneath efficient, acrylic removers. You accomplish an aspect of chance. I adulation ruins. I adulation the charcoal of Pompeii. I don’t apperceive if we would accept admired those paintings as able-bodied if we saw them the way they looked 2000 years ago.
JS: Has that been a accountable for you — painting the furnishings of time?
JL: Yes, I fabricated it the accountable of my painting “Pompeiian Porky” (2003-7). I anticipate it’s the alone conceptual painting I made. I was cerebration about whether annihilation you painted, if it had those furnishings of time over 2,000 years, could become agitating and moving. I was because painting a Wonder Bread wrapper, or Donald Duck, but absitively on the Warner Bros. appearance Porky Pig, because I capital to acrylic the blush and white image.
When I aboriginal began the painting “Bathtub” (1972-2010), it had a amount in it. Afterwards award Milton Resnick and Frank Auerbach, which led me aback to Georges Rouault, I afflicted the way I was working. I capital to acrylic a axial image, and get rid of anecdotal figures. I capital to use consecutive imagery, and aloof capacity that didn’t absorb arrant expressionist cartoon and blue figures.
JS: Did you anticipate the bathtub was a aloof subject?
JL: Well, I did aback I absitively to acrylic furniture. But maybe they were not neutral, because I anticipate of the armchair as my father’s chair. In the hippie days, assertive women would accomplish their apartments affectionate of retro, with old claw-footed bathtubs. The bathtub became a affectionate of amateur for the woman in the apartment.
In The Horse’s Mouth, a 1958 blur based on the Joyce Cary novel, the appearance Gully Jimson paints a woman in a bathtub. The paintings for the cine were fabricated by John Bratby. That cine was one of the things that fabricated me appetite to accomplish to actuality a painter. Also, aback I was in art school, Don Gualdoni showed me a admirable carving of a woman in a bathtub by the painter Earl Staley. He is from Texas, and was included in the 1978 New Museum exhibition Bad Painting, curated by Marcia Tucker.
I assume to be absorbed in monoliths: a car, an armchair, a arch and shoulders, an article on a table, a abode on the ground. My wife, Ruth Leonard, and I absorb time at her family’s berth on a basin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’ve been apprehensive if I can aloof acrylic the lake, after defining it with the shores, and all the things that are about it. The basin would become its own vessel. There’s abundant activity on. Could I do that? I appetite article new. I’m advantaged to a backward period!
I feel like it’s time to let go. I don’t appetite to feel like I accept to be dictated by subject. I appetite to accompany the blush up. I absorb time attractive at artists like Sonia Delaunay and Morgan Russell. I’ve paid my dues. I appetite to acrylic blissful color.
I accept a actual acceptable anamnesis for the contest of my activity up to a assertive point. I ambition I didn’t bethink things so well. It has afflicted a bit aback we confused upstate. I capital to pay added absorption to my activity in the present. The annal drawings, and my paintings which absorb the beck and the hills, Ruth and myself, and our animals, reflect my attack to absolutely pay attention.
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