At Betty Cuningham, John Lees’s Paintings Mark Time Passing
The artist John Lees works slowly. “I spend a long time on paintings, I mean, a very long time,” he has said about his process, which can stretch on for many years, even decades, for a single work. So it is cause for celebration that 16 of his completed paintings, as well as 10 drawings, are currently on view at New York’s Betty Cuningham Gallery, in his fourth solo show with the gallery.
It is his interest in “the physicality of paint,” in part, that drives Lees to work and re-work a single composition for years. He thinks of paint not as flat pigment but as a kind of “colored clay,” which can be molded and manipulated on the face of the canvas, resulting in heavily textured, impastoed surfaces. As he builds up and scrapes away layer upon layer of paint, time and process become essential parts of his creations.
Lees draws his subject matter from his memories and personal experiences, as well as from his passion for music and film. In this show, the artist’s father is represented in several paintings and drawings. He appears, for example, in Man Sitting in an Armchair (2013), a quiet composition showing him seated in an overstuffed armchair, his face in profile. A low table next to the armchair holds his whisky and cigarettes in this scene of repose, which is bathed in the soft glow of a wall-mounted lamp. The lamp’s curved arm and triangular shade playfully echo the shape and position of his profile—a pictorial device that exemplifies the artist’s keen eye for composition.
In another painting, titled Portrait, 1972 (2005), Lees hones in on his father’s face. Depicted straight on, his visage appears to be carved, reading a bit like a topographical study—a map of features, folds, and lines. In this sense, it aligns with another work, titled Hills (2001–2015), which is dominated by rolling green hills tinged with autumnal hues. But, then again, perhaps many of Lees’s works are topographical, mapping every visual nuance of his subjects—and the work of the hand it took to paint them.