Gilbert Lewis: Portraits 1979 – 2002
On ViewKapp Kapp
January 14–February 25, 2023
They would talk. He liked to have models bring cassettes to his studio to play their favorite music or don their new clothes. He liked fabric and painting its folds. He didn’t like the gallery system and in many ways felt rejected by it. He didn’t sell many portraits, mostly just flower still lifes. Gays seem to love their flower still lifes.
A fixture of the Philadelphia art scene since he graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1968, Virginia-born artist Gilbert Lewis worked as an art therapist at the Manchester House Nursing Home in Media, Pennsylvania, painting elderly residents, all the while making gouache, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite portraits of the young men he met while living in the city. In these works, spanning the late 1970s to the early 2000s and presented at Kapp Kapp for his first solo New York exhibition in two decades, Lewis distills intimate representations of queer life from the periphery—a network of friends and acquaintances who made up the art scene on South Street.
What distinguishes Lewis’s paintings from many of his contemporaries is his commitment to training. His was the curriculum of Thomas Eakins at PAFA, of careful observation and drawing from life. It’s an honest and palpable engagement with the men who inhabit his works, producing a nearness both in the gestural rub of pigment and in the sitters’ relationship to the painter. These portraits evince the delicacy and humor of a downward gaze while caressed in red faux fur. With careful attention to detail, Lewis punctuates each work with the little things with which we adorn ourselves. In Untitled Male Portrait (Drop Earring) (ca. 1990) a wide-eyed youth stares against a solid background, wrapped in a vibrant orange hoodie, a single, pendulous earring framing his stubbled face. Others appear as American colonials, as rockabillies, in “designer jeans.”
What is it about clothes? About the fineries and embellishments which the men of Lewis’s paintings seem to be trying on, dressing up and dressing down, that gives these paintings their immanence? In truth, his figures rarely seem to be in stages of undress, which might suggest a lust for the temporal (“brevity is the soul of lingerie,” Dorothy Parker once quipped) but are either clothed or laid bare. This distinction enforces their simultaneous sense of stillness and immediacy, a quality Lewis found in both the works of David Hockney and Italian Renaissance painters—though his is much sweeter. Here, the break between figure and ground through vivid color suspends his figures in a spatial durée, ageless and timeless. By distinguishing between the unclothed body and its embellishment, he likewise foregrounds the subject within the body itself. In Lewis's case, small bodies in oversized suits, or elongated, mannerist necks that emerge from neckties and shirt collars.
In this tender and gentle form of academicism, Lewis’s men are lanky, with an awkward naïvety. Seeking guidance from a trusted listener, they are credulous, perhaps not as desirable as they’d like. But they desire: they return Lewis’s longing gaze. It’s a vision of masculinity in a softer color palette. Even his nudes share in this vulnerability and innocence. In Swimmer (1984), one of the largest works in the exhibition, a slender blond sits atop a floral tablecloth—a lit stage from which he leans forward, his legs dangling, bush peeking out, his stare strange and bold.
It’s not the revelry of Paul Cadmus or overly concerned with realism. In this regard, Lewis himself drew comparison to the portrait studies of George Catlin, whose paintings of the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains during the 1830s picture a startling immediacy as he sought to document dignitaries of “noble savagery.” Perhaps Lewis found commonality in Catlin’s ethnographic approach to detail or the sense of longing which suffuses his studies. In an artist statement he would later write: “One of my motivations in painting has been to celebrate the beginning of adulthood for the young and the final period of life for the old… What struck me is that both young men and the old are ignored by society.”1
I’m not sure how ignored young men are today, but in a landscape of “queer figuration” that often elicits the immediate gratification of identifying with a generalized political or erotic sensibility, the work of Gilbert Lewis offers a much-needed look at a more subtle and overlooked queer gaze. In the rather fragile mediums of gouache and watercolor on paper, Lewis is able to match the vigor of oil-on-canvas painting while sustaining the integrity of the paper’s surface. This tension seems to underscore his very image of queerness, a concept with which he had a contested relationship.
His flower still lifes, two of which are included in the exhibition, soundly encapsulate this vision. Whether they be lilies or cherry blossoms, succored by little water, they rejoice in their ever-continuous peril, resolved to the utterly transient and momentary reality of their beauty.
Quoted in Gilbert Lewis: Many Faces, Many Figures, Woodmere Art Museum, 2020, p. 33.