Straightforward Art and the Confused Art Critic

Thursday, August 8th, 2013 at 11:48 AM
Straightforward Art and the Confused Art Critic by Pen Ealain

I have to admit right off the bat that I’m conflicted about the show I’m reviewing here. I like it, but somehow it’s against my aesthetic code to like it. What to do? Perhaps you, dear Reader reader, can ruminate with me as I puzzle this out. Perhaps it will be constructive for both of us.

My original intent was to review one of several captivating exhibits currently on display at the Erie Art Museum, but as I approached the entrance on East Fifth Street, the kaleidoscopic parade of treasures in the window of the gallery next door caught my eye. Being the easily distracted type, whose attention span is that of a goldfish, I altered my course and jingled the door as I entered. Glass Grower’s Gallery is attached to the Art Museum – through the back anyway – and one-of-a-kind shiny curios can fire my creative spirit in ways that the mass-produced inferior rubbish you find in most stores can’t. Everything in Glass Growers is worth looking at, because you are unlikely to see anything similar anywhere else.

Upon entering this wonderland of handcrafted artistry, the lovely proprietor, Deborah Vahanian met me with her usual bright smile and unbridled energy. Debbie dragged me back to the show she was busily hanging for Gallery Night.

Off to the side were some bright ceramic jars by Sue Hunter – pretty pieces with the metallic oxides typical of raku evident on their contours. Arranged in the main gallery space was a display of landscapes by Jason Lewis. As Debbie and I chatted about the art business, I glanced at the drawings and paintings surrounding me.

“Nope,” I thought, “not going to review this show. It’s just a bunch of realistic landscapes; something we’ve all seen a thousand times before – way too cliché.”

Here’s a life lesson to share with you: Don’t be too quick to dismiss chances you are given in life. The man who made these drawings and paintings had spent hundreds of quiet, practiced hours on them and I was about to make the arrogant and unwise decision of moving on to something else without giving them just a tiny fraction of those hours.

Luckily, I had Debbie with me. She was chatting away about how business changes during big downtown events like Roar on the Shore, when she noticed me glancing at the Lewis drawings. “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Yeah, they are. You’ll probably sell a lot of them,” I cynically replied.

“Well, maybe, but what you should really notice about these is the way he captures the light. He portrays the mood of the day in such a precise way, you feel like you are really there.”

And of course, she was right. I had let prejudices pull me away from something that should have been given a chance. Chastened, I looked more closely at a colored pencil rendering of the beach in winter. Yes, at first glance it was just another picture of Presque Isle, but it was more than that. The lighting on the clouds was exactly what I remember when walking those beaches last December. In my mind, I could feel the coldness and the loneliness and the give of the sand under my boots. I could hear the waves lapping the shore and the breeze through the switch grass. The drawing was a bit of wonderful craftsmanship. It was evocative. It was... really good.

Herein lays the problem, dear Reader reader: As an art critic I’m not supposed to like this stuff. It’s not creative. It doesn’t say anything new. It doesn’t make the viewer think. But I have to ask myself: Does that make it bad art? It’s probably not bad art if it can evoke those kinds of sensations.

 As I moved around the room, I spent time with several of these tightly rendered and almost photographically realistic works. Each one transported me to a place I remember: a creek I had fished, a hillside I had sledded, a beach where I had skipped stones. The room faded away and I became lost in these places that everyone who loves the outdoors in Northwestern Pennsylvania knows so well. The paintings brought me to places where I had been alone with God and creation. They stirred in my soul a desire to be back in those places.

So, it must be pretty obvious to you by now that I was pretty impressed with the work of Jason Lewis, right? So what’s the problem? Can’t I just get over myself and come out and say that drawing realistic pictures from nature is just as legitimate as any other form of art? That would be easy, but my conflict runs deeper than just being an over-educated stuck-up art snob. I’m also an art teacher.

This becomes an issue because one of the biggest problems I have in educating my students is getting them to think that anything beyond realism is art. Show the average ninth graders a Picasso and they will turn their noses up at it and say, “It doesn’t look real.” If I let them, my students would all spend their high-school years doing tight portrait drawings of Nicki Minaj and 10-point bucks. They would also spend those years brooding about how their drawings aren’t “good” enough. To them realism is good, everything else is bad. So I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get that thought out of their heads. You don’t want to be there for my tirade when they say to me, “There’s nothing wrong with copying a picture out of this magazine.” As a result, I may be predisposed to dismissing pictorial realism as soon as I see it.

All this exposition means that I’m conflicted about recommending Jason Lewis’s show at Glass Growers Gallery to you. But as you can see, I never did write about the shows happening at the Art Museum, so I must not be that conflicted after all. Jason Lewis’s art is quiet, contemplative, interesting, and beautiful. It may not have anything completely new to say, but what it does say is wonderful.

Glass Growers Gallery is located at 10 E. Fifth St.

Jason Lewis: Expanses - Detailed, interpretative, regional landscapes, Sue Hunter: Small Treasures - Raku fired ceramics, Lisa Monahan: Switching Gears - Interchangeable Silver Jewelry runs July 19 to September 3.

Pen Ealain can be contacted at 

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