Sixty-three-year-old painter Stephen Lack, legendary polysexual sybarite of the East Village scene, swooped down for a visit after opening a solo show at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, N.Y., last week, his van still full of paintings from his recent exhibition at Illinois State University. Lack, who had his brain scanned by Patrick McGoohan in David Cronenberg's Scanners, remembered the late thespian as a Royal Shakespeare-trained tippler who jealously questioned Stephen, the lead in Cronenberg's film, "Stephen, where did you learn how to act?" The answer, of course, was with other lowlifes on the streets of Montreal, Lack's hometown, good enough to have McGoohan, star of The Prisoner and Secret Agent, haul Stephen off to a pub for a few rounds.
Lack is a nonstop blabber, full of philosophical insights, so I took him over to the bridge of the Croton Reservoir to watch the rising of the harvest moon. As the sunset fell, Lack and I joined a family of traditionally dressed Orthodox Jews celebrating Succoth, as a humongous, bright orange orb rose above the eastern horizon. We were surrounded by the kind of sultry colors that Stephen has luxuriated in for four decades, since he was a star in the Gracie Mansion Gallery, when Jean Michel-Basquiat was his best friend and Hollywood big shots handed him rolls of cash for his paintings.
"I got out of that hedonistic scene just in time," Lack opined, although he grinned that he would "still like to lather David Bowie up and have my way with him." Happily married with two grown sons, the youngest of whom is the rock musician Asher Lack, Lack now seeks Nirvana by continuing the nonstop production of small paintings which he channels through his New York representative, Fred Dorfman Projects.
"I don't do penises," Lack observed, as he unwrapped a couple of dozen new paintings of dreamy boys lounging in trees for my inspection. I remarked that these works seemed like a lax commentary on Duncan Hannah's paintings, to which Stephen vigorously assented, "I love Duncan's work." Then Stephen spread a number of candy-colored paintings of luxury cars all around my den, as we talked of Robert Bechtle and Peter Cain.
There is a magpie element to Lack's efforts, the sense that he lazily grabs subjects from out of the sky and floats them in the colored mess of his palette. Particularly in his landscapes, my personal preference, in which Lack often drops a solitary figure or boat, Stephen's work combines a sense of 1950s American nostalgia with a leaven of anxiety. "I have a lot of anger in me, Charlie" Lack asserts, and his boy-fighting paintings confirm it. But, with a tea and veggie diet and a determined, to the point of obsession, existential mindset fixed on the atoms and the stars, Lack is making the best of his golden years.
He has been a movie star, a libertine, a devoted family man and a prickly cat in a cool alley, but Stephen Lack remains a painter of particular genius and depth.
"Stephen Lack: Paintings, Pastels and Drawings," Oct. 3-Nov. 14, 2009, at Joyce Goldstein Gallery, 16 Main Street, Chatham, N.Y.
"Autonation: Stephen Lack," Sept. 22-Nov. 8, 2009, at Illinois State University Art Galleries, 110 Center for the Visual Arts, Normal, Ill. 61790
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).