Magazine article Artforum International

John Lees: Betty Cuningham Gallery

Magazine article Artforum International

John Lees: Betty Cuningham Gallery

Article excerpt

Claude Lantier, a fictional painter, fated to never complete a work, whom Emile Zola depicts in his novel l'Oeuvre (1886), has long been assumed to be based on Cezanne, a characterization that led to an irreparable break between the supreme artist of the modern era and the great realist writer who was Cezanne's closest boyhood friend and earliest champion. One cannot help but remember this painful fait divers now that John Lees, one of the grandest eccentrics of modern American painting, is at last having a show.

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Lees, both as painter and draftsman, has ever been unable--is doubtless unwilling--to finish a work. This dilatoriness has fostered a curious underground celebrity that has percolated for years, longer even than it takes this veteran figure not to bring a work to completion. Among the strange details of Lees's practice is the inscription of a marginal or dorsal record of dates that clock when the work began, when it was put aside, and when it was taken up again. Such marginalia indicate years of painting and revision, of time taken neither to finish nor quite abandon a work (both options, it seems, that Lees could never exercise).

Two things occur while working over such extended time frames: With regard to painterly concerns, Lees's minute, hesitant, incremental strokes of color are scraped down and rebuilt, developing inconclusive crusts of pigment that protrude off the surface to produce a kind of calloused quasi-relief. In his drawings, Lees reverses the additive processes of pen and pencil through insistent erasure, obliterating the paper's surface often down to the fiber--erasure as the very mirror of drawing. Such increments and decrements underscore the sheer materiality of Lees's work, leading to the false hope that white crusts of paint will convey a sense of luminosity despite all the tinted roseate blush. …

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