Comic books and Albrecht Durer. They formed the Alpha and Omega of my visual world as an only child immersed in the mysteries of art. In both I found superheroes.
Every now and then we encounter the ineffable, indescribable and unmistakable phenomenon known as “charisma,” a quality upon which the idea of the superhero was hatched. Whether we happen upon charisma in the physical presence of another human being or discover it in the fruits of their labors, their life’s work, it is undeniable. It may be something that “slipped in” from the “other side,” or came from another planet like Superman, as there is no explanation for it in this tangible world.
Leslie Lew has it in spades.
Me and Leslie Lew (notice her shoes).
My first encounter with the charisma of Leslie Lew was through her work itself. Funny thing about that… So many practicing artists reveal similar degrees of technical skill and render imagery of a similar nature, but few posses that immutable quality which resonates for viewers open to the aesthetic experience. The “it” factor. For me and Leslie’s work, it was a complete “no contest.”
When I first viewed one of her paintings, my eyes drank in voluptuous surfaces, and lavish, luscious colors, augmented by a textural relief technique (which Leslie invented, called “Sculpted Oils”) which was at once irresistible and formidable. The subject was “Wonder Woman,” and she appeared from the cover of a vintage 1960’s D.C. comic book (complete with a ten cent price button), leaping into action to save the day. Now most men my age, who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s and succumbed to the lure of the “picture novel” (often to the overt distaste of our parents), and who are forthcoming enough to admit it, will agree that Wonder Woman was hot. Leslie’s “WW” is way hotter.
The contemplation of one of her paintings is a multifaceted experience. It’s difficult to discern which parts are most pleasurable as equally fascinating qualities of form and content compete for attention. For me (and many of her devotees) it begins with the reinterpreted nostalgia of her world. As represented to us through the unique prism of her own cumulative life and cultural experiences growing up as a child born in the early 1950’s, raised in the ‘60’s, artistically forged in the ‘70’s, paying her dues in the ‘80’s and emerging fully formed as a mature fine artist into the ‘90’s and beyond. This appeal appears to be without any boundaries and her work is savored by people from all walks of life, all ages and degrees of artistic sophistication. She seems to have that indefinable quality of the “great ones,” and certainly the enduring ones, of being instantly accessible and as “deep” as you care to go.
When I finally met Leslie, I encountered the other kind of charisma: the human kind; the kind of which everyone dreams and few posses. She is electric, magnetic and radiates an energy, enthusiasm and honest passion for her work and her life impossible to forbear.
Strike two for me.
“Action #1 (Superman)” (2010) by Leslie Lew
In my many years of discourse and interaction with artists of all cultures and ages, I’m hard pressed to think of another who was so comfortable in her skin, openly speaking of her art with an eloquence and insight that ran parallel to her artwork (as do the titles of her paintings). So many artists (no fault of their own) prefer communication to be visual. They are often uncomfortable speaking, especially to groups, about their work. To Leslie, it’s all “flow,” an opportunity to add another dimension to her already multi-dimensional artwork.
At an event that we both attended I watched her, for the first time, from a distance in her black and white designer blouse and red shoes. She spoke to our mutual clients of her life and work with a diffidence and approachability belied by her prowess as a painter and her extensive credentials. She invited the guests to come up and “paint” onto one of her mixed-media canvasses. I watched as they queued up, one by one, and saw the delight in their eyes and faces as they spun and twirled the brushes, and contributed their own impasto applications of color to areas and surfaces of the image, leaving their own mark on a slice of 21st Century art history. I couldn’t resist, had to partake, and that same night I got a healthy dollop of white paint on the sleeve of my black dinner jacket. Leslie had left her mark on me.
When I was able to finally spend some time with her, I was most intrigued by her “story.” For me as a dealer with an insatiable appetite for art history, it’s all about people, the tangible and concrete, the real lives of those who eschew the world of the “day job” and forge fearlessly ahead to conquer the problems of aesthetics.
Leslie is the eldest of four daughters of the legendary Chicago advertising executive Les Hopkins (she is “Leslie Jr.”), who was responsible for some of the most enduring ad campaigns of Baby Boom culture including, “Alka Seltzer” and “Sugar Smacks” cereal (he invented the Sugar Smacks Brothers) among others. Raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and inheriting many of her father’s gifts, she recognized at an early age her destiny to become an artist in the form of an epiphany while sketching Lake Michigan. Later, her father turned his back on his successful, but stress-ridden career, divorced, checked-out of the business world and moved the family to Oregon, where Leslie and her three sisters lived a frugal “hippie-esque” life. This in some ways prepared her for the hardships she herself would endure in years to come. She returned to Chicago and attended the prestigious school of the Chicago Art Institute to receive her BFA and MFA degrees. There she became part of one of most esoteric, but simultaneously unique and distinctive movements in the narrative of late 20th Century painting, the “Hairy Who.”
“Sugar Smacks Box” (2009) by Leslie Lew
As a young art student growing up in Chicago (Leslie and I are the same age), I was also heavily into the Hairy Who. I adored the “twisted” but riveting imagery of Jim Nut (think George Grosz meets R. Crumb), and Roger Brown (who remains one of Leslie’s heroes), whose stylized imagery takes the naïve approach of someone like Grandma Moses and launches into a completely new realm of urban sophisticated-primitivism. Leslie knew both of these artists, exhibited with them and studied under another heavyweight of the movement, Ray Yoshida. During these years she honed her drawing skills (which are striking), and minored in art history, a passion which still deeply absorbs her.
The next phase of her life took her to New York, where she bore extraordinary hardship and sacrifices for her art, raising her young son Sean (now, a practicing musician and songwriter) as a single mother and supporting her small family solely as an artist. This was a defining time in her life, eventually materializing artistically in Leslie’s use of “Wonder Woman,” as a symbol for the superheroes women often become to deal with the challenges in their own lives. Her entry into the emerging, “East Village” scene in the 1980’s brought her early recognition, and formed the launching platform for her impressive reputation and the extensive art world credentials she possesses today.
Leslie is no lightweight. Her works have toured in museum exhibitions sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon Museum and the Guggenheim (upon whose walls her paintings have hung). She’s shown in the best “high end” New York galleries next to works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Man Ray. Her works have been reviewed by untold magazines, art journals and newspapers, along with art professors (NYU amongst them) and museum curators. She is featured in the recently published coffee-table tome on the Martin Z. Margulies Collection. Mr. Margulies’ legendary collection is one of America’s premier collections of modern and contemporary works in all media. Being featured and reviewed in this collection (destined for an exclusive museum residence) is a benchmark for any contemporary artist, as it positions them alongside masterworks by Picasso, Miro, Pollack, Rothko and Calder, among many others. Her works have been collected world-wide by a “who’s who” of celebrities and luminaries.
And yet with all of these “legit” achievements in an unbelievably competitive art world, Leslie seeks not to remain rarified. She told me, “I have always felt that art should be for the masses not for just a few of the ‘elite.’ I have worked and established myself…for over twenty-five years. Now is the time to have fun and do what I was meant to do…share my work with the world…and the masses…”
And the masses love it, from what I can tell.
“Still Life with Fruit” (2009) by Leslie Lew
Leslie defines three artists as prime influences. She begins with Peter Max. Max is the consummate media master. He has seamlessly bridged the division between “fine” and “commercial” art. In Max’s world, no limit exists on the expression or manifestation of his art. He believes the artist can use the media of our times fluidly. He can create imagery which may be reinterpreted into a limitless number of incarnations and expressions. From the most sophisticated (paintings on the White House lawn) to the most common (ice tea bottles), he sees no separation in his quest to bring his art to the world. Leslie completely agrees. It is only a matter of time, in my opinion, until her work reaches a similar degree of exposure. For now, she creates paintings, monotypes (a lavish combination of painting and digital printmaking), deeply embossed cast paper multiples (also heavily hand-painted), prints, and even extravagant series of tiny matchbook covers, with hand-painted collages affixed. For the future, who knows? I can only imagine what her fertile mind will envision as the next outlet for her imagery.
Next is of course: Andy Warhol. There is an irony in Leslie’s admiration for Warhol, and it deals with the subversive contributions he made to the definitions of what is and isn’t art. Distinguished art historian and Professor, Arthur C. Danto viewed Warhol as the ultimate apostle of Duchamp, and saw his Brillo Box sculpture (1964) as the extension of Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” but positioned in a contemporary American cultural context, which was ultimately responsible for the creation of the “Pop Art” movement. Leslie has inoculated this “art for art’s sake” virus in her work (more on this later), but embraces the notion from Warhol (and many of the most permeated artists of the movement) of the appropriation of imagery from our culture. But the notion of discovering something (often pedestrian or banal) that exists in one cultural context and “elevating” it to fine art through the artist’s identification, isolation, ascension and frequent disparagement so common in the “Pop” idiom, has virtually no place in her canon. Leslie’s pursuit attracts her to subjects from our culture with the intention to elevate us and to remind us of an enhanced quality of life which her cultural signposts embody. She prefers to present the uplifting qualities and values of American culture. It is clear these endorsements often reveal an unembarrassed nostalgic view, but her perspective is focused on messages of optimism and hope. And this is where her third articulated influence appears (surprisingly to many): Norman Rockwell.
Few American artists have been (or will probably ever be) as polarizing as Rockwell amongst fine artists. To his champions he achieved the highest degree of capturing his milieu, his culture, his time and the “spirit” of his generation (in my mind, among the ultimate achievements of any artist–consider Toulouse-Lautrec). To his detractors, he was nothing more than an “illustrator,” whose accessible, often sentimental, and unabashedly narrative imagery reached too broad an audience to enter the realm of “real art.”
Setting aside the arguments on both sides (as time will be the ultimate arbiter) there is no denying Rockwell’s ability to tell a story and to hold up a mirror to American life. Leslie has embraced this idea with a new vision, a new timeframe and a new zeal. Her milieu is a different America–one that emerges from Rockwell’s pre and post-war periods to the next generation’s cultural touchstones, and the personal experiences which shaped her own idiomatic iconography.
“Animal Crackers” (2009) by Leslie Lew
Leslie’s imagery is fertile and apparently unlimited just like her energy. Her comic book themes (which along with superheroes) feature subjects like, Felix the Cat, Blondie, Popeye, Dick Tracy, Lil’ Abner, Little Lulu, Barney Google, True Love and Boy Meets Girl comics. Early childhood memories emerge in Dick and Jane kindergarten readers; breakfast cereal box covers, amusement parks and other family memories and holidays. She’s also struck a strong chord through her use of circa 1960’s “comfort foods (Leslie’s interpretation of the “Animal Crackers” box cover has been a subject of numerous media reviews) and familiar locations of interest in New York, Chicago and other locales etched in her memory. She includes supermarket and toy store interiors (displaying their products in the glory of fluorescent lighting splendor); and her own interpretations of singular places she’s remembered including her ex-boyfriend’s mother’s apartment and her art school supplies store. She has written and illustrated a children’s book which focuses on building esteem for children and celebrating each child’s unique differences. This is the stuff of her generation’s fabric, and it resonates deeply with her audiences.
Another aspect of her work (which appeals to me personally) is her integration of great artist’s works into her own vision, a by-product of her deep knowledge of art history. Works of the masters often inhabit her imagery. Van Gogh appears in a bedroom scene (a visual pun) among other artists occupying interiors, along with a moving interpretation of his “Irises” painting in the Chicago Art Institute. But in particularly powerful manifestations during the years 1988-1995, she created a series of four and five paneled screens (some as large as 60” x 120”) reinterpreting, in her alluring “sculpted oil” technique, the works of Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Japanese woodcuts, Kandinsky, Breughel and an unparalleled version of Picasso’s Guernica (which she told me she’ll never sell). Picasso has and will always be the paragon for me… So I’m “out”… strike three for me.
Beyond the unexpected impression Leslie’s physical presence and art has had upon me, I am fortunate to also know and to have known many world-class artists. In every case, when given the opportunity, I have spoken to them about the current state of the art world, and the vacuum that exist in the consciousness of our contemporary culture toward visual art. At a time when music, film, theatre, literature and dance remain ubiquitous in our society, and are publicly consumed at startling levels forming multi-billion dollar industries, we have to ask the question, “Where did art go?” It’s not hard to figure it out. When “artists” starve animals in public, slice up sharks and install them in formaldehyde-filled glass boxes, and affix dead flies to canvas in the name of “art,” there is little reason to wonder. Former Christies’ executive, Phillip Hook summed up this contemporary phenomenon succinctly in his book, The Ultimate Trophy (Prestel, 2009): “We live in an era which, more than ever before, equates novelty (emphasis mine) with quality.”
“Art in America” (2008) by Leslie Lew
In almost every case, I can attest that the artists to whom I speak, the “Aesthetic Olympians” like Leslie, sense a “collective consciousness” transformation occurring right now. It is found in the imperative to return to beauty, in the resistance and diminution of “art for art’s sake” and reflected in an awareness of the true hunger in the world once again, for the ideals that can inspire and enrich us, and amplify our lives and experiences. These artists identify with that searching, questing restlessness to answer the same age-old mysteries: “Why are we here? Why do we as homo-sapiens exist as the only species that can create, and what do our creations reveal?”
I was excited when Leslie informed me, as we discussed these issues, that she had chosen to align herself with Park West Gallery for these very same reasons, and had declined requests from some of the “heavy weight” New York galleries who had been vying for a contract with her. I asked her if she had taken any “heat” for it. She laughed and responded, “I love to push the edge…I have been tormenting my ‘fine art/museum crowd’ for years… but not with ‘anti-art, scary art’…but with making gorgeous surfaces, colors—but somehow using relevant concepts. Boy does this confuse them!”
I am certainly grateful to her for choosing Park West Gallery as her conduit to bring a new, expansive audience and greater exposure to her than she has previously experienced, but my elation was quickly tempered by a sense of heavy responsibility. Would we do her justice?
I was comforted however; when she relayed a childhood story to me (It could easily have appeared in a Dick and Jane reader).
“Once Upon a Time” (2004) by Leslie Lew
As a child Leslie was “pigeon-toed.” Her mother rejected the urging of doctors who recommended surgery. Instead, she proclaimed that she would study ballet, and conquer her affliction. She was enrolled in a ballet class only to be refused by the instructor (a woman who trained Maria Tallchief, renowned American dancer who performed with the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Russe and Balanchine) who told her parents that she had no talent, and would never become a dancer at any level. Undeterred, Leslie herself (even at such a young age), refused to accept this assessment and began a painstaking practice routine (for as many as eight hours a day) for more than a year, at the ballet barre she had asked her parents to install in their home. As an incentive, her mother bought Leslie some very “cool” red dancing shoes, in which to practice and ultimately perform. They were a joyful motivation amidst a formidable and serious challenge. A year later in a live recital, she performed a flawless Nutcracker, to the delight and approval of her previously unimpressed teacher and her parents with (it goes without saying) perfectly positioned feet. To this day Leslie often wears red shoes when she desires a shamanistic and symbolic “power source.” She was wearing some when I watched her for the first time.
When I heard that story, I knew I had nothing to fear. Leslie’s conquering of the Park West Gallery world and her determination and commitment was a “done deal.” We just needed to get out of the way. I’ve learned that contrary to popular belief, our childhood does often prepare us for whatever life throws our way.
“Wonder Woman-Making a Splash” (2002) by Leslie Lew
I finally asked Leslie who were her artistic idols. I needed to know. We all have them, those of us who can’t get enough of the glories of art. Those who savor and pursue the inscrutable mysteries of that “thing” that serves no purpose other than to thrill us, to inspire us, and to keep us moving toward revelations which can only be described as “charismatic.” She told me of her four artistic superheroes:
Fra Filippo Lipi (1406-1469), Florentine master and teacher of Botticelli, whose technical mastery at his time was unparalleled (Leslie studied in Florence during summers for three years as a student, where she fell under his spell).
Rembrandt van Rijn, Master of the Baroque, who’s depiction of the quintessential dramatic mood in painting is still without peer. Rembrandt’s experimentation with the qualities of painting and his delight in the nature of applying paint to canvas is still the stuff of legend.
Vincent Van Gogh, the “Father of Expressionism” and an artist who believed art was for everyone and never to be withheld for any reason, from any person. Van Gogh’s tactile application of paint, his textures, and surfaces, luminosity of color and sheer power of visual impact has surely been the “seed” of Leslie’s astonishing techniques.
And, ironically… Albrecht Durer, arguably the greatest draftsman of all time, and for whom I share the same admiration as Leslie…
…and for “Comic books and Superheroes…”
…oh, and by the way, Wonder Woman wears “red shoes” too.