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Back to Reviews 97

Double Exposure,

One Hand Clapping,

Susanna and the Elders,

Nervous Priest,

willy lenski 

at o'hara

by Cathy Lebowitz

Although it's been many years since the New York artist Willy Lenski stopped making films, many of the oil paintings in this show seem intimately connected to film and camera effects. There are double exposures (in Double Exposure, two images of a girl looking through a camera overlap, her partially open mouth echoing the circle of the lens); dissolves (in About, You Know, the Past, the sexy torso of a young boy on the left side dissolves into bare feet on the right); sound strips (in Nervous Priest a monk shares the pictorial space with a collaged film strip, containing not images but the graphic wave form of the chanted syllable "om"); and production out-takes (in Reverse Pre-Raphaelite, the female model posing for the large painting Susanna and the Elders sits on a chair and smokes a cigarette during a break).

The film motifs are a clue. Lenski is after something that takes place "between" the naturalistic image (as on the movie screen) and the viewer, an effect of subjective consciousness that approaches the metaphysical from a position rooted in what he calls "that right-here quality demonstrated in an object painted with an immediate and tactile beauty." The craft of the paintings is a recognition that the compulsion to make pictures is another one of the world's oldest professions.

With works varying in size from 14 x 16 in. to 45 x 70 in., this show is rich and sprawling. At first glance monochromatic, the paintings are done in a grisaille of raw umber, a pigment mixed with other muted hues -- white and gold, rose and viridian -- for an effect that the artist wryly terms "psychedelic brown." They're painted on smooth wood panel and unframed, and combine carefully drawn and modeled figures that seem to emerge from abstract backgrounds of broad gestures and accidental calligraphy.

I would have to say that Lenski is a religious painter after the death of God. The Nervous Priest, shown catching a smoke -- is it tobacco or something more mind- expanding? -- is taking a break from the sacred. He's a character who's out of character. "Real character is about addiction," Lenski says, "you can see it in the fingertips." In Pieta, a young man (modeled by the artist's son -- is this important?) takes the Virgin's pose, but embraces only air -- or it could be a ghost. In a smaller painting, a bare- chested man dressed in running shorts and sneakers stands in a sacred space, apprehensively looking over his shoulder lest someone see his sacred code -- he's at a bank cash machine. Another large painting, called Floorboards, shows a workman sorting through a pile of planks that extends up and out of the entire visual field; it's an allegorical image that begins from the title of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, which literally translates as "...from under the floorboards."

My favorite work, Susanna and the Elders, stages the parable with minimal detail, placing the two malevolent male voyeurs off to the side and Susanna in a flower-covered bikini at the water's edge, standing by the famous pair of trees that the prophet Daniel uses to separate the truth from the word, that is, to establish Susanna's innocence in the face of the false testimony of the elders. Over the gallery desk is One Hand Clapping, a painting that shows an erotic spanking (by a male hand of a naked female behind), multiplied by four with a good deal of compositional finesse. It stays in the realm of the sensual, bordering on the pornographic, but suggests most strongly a previously unseen erotic detail from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling.

Lenski's work is philosophy on a rude level, an answer to the iconoclasts who insist that the image of god can't be made of the same stuff as chamber pots. But that's exactly the level at which paintings work best, as small philosophical arguments that lead the viewer back to real philosophical events like birth and death. As the Catholic saint John of Damascus put it in the 8th century A.D., even the unlettered peasant knows that the coin in his pocket stamped with the image of the emperor is not the emperor in his pocket. But he knows that he's in the emperor's realm.

O'Hara Gallery, 41 E. 57th St., NYC 10022
Feb. 26 - Mar. 22 1997

CATHY LEBOWITZ is a painter and works at Art in America.