For the past twenty or so years I have had the pleasure and honor of watching the delicious turns in the artistic practice of Don Lewallen. I have found deep meaning in his work, as evidenced in his recent series of drawings on paper. Don is highly informed about art making, its materials, its theories, and about the history of art that is not only part of our shared legacy, but deeply significant to him in his contemporary studio practice. In his recent works he displays this full range, and it seems to me that he has developed a form of “lyrical surrealism” that pulls simultaneously on the heart and on the mind. The sources of his works on paper are diverse, and he encourages this diversity of concept and of visual representation, with huge meanings underpinning. First, he is drawing from a myriad of visual sources. These are concretized as diversely as through a practice of automatic drawing to design shapes intuitively, through drawing from the numerous beautiful shapes seen in both the structure of neurons and synapses and in the aerial view of the geometries of fields or of bodies of water drawn from photographs and aerial photography. This not only lends mystery to his overall choices, it is a declaration of the simultaneous co-existence of many thoughts, philosophies and realities. An outstanding example is his use of sources, of great beauty in their shapes, that are also representations of entropy or things in nature, for example, glaciers, that are cracking, falling apart. His shapes speak volumes about his large imagination, and his breadth of visual resources and the associations that he makes to them. Lyrical surrealism. The artist balances the contradictions of his diverse sources and shapes through beautiful choices of color, that are not standard or predictable. His work has wit, confronting the deep history of Western art-making by both appreciative focus on what those artists executed in the spaces and shapes of their iconic works, and in deconstructing this a bit. In one work, for example, are separate zones of elements, including a reflection of the shape of archways in the church of St. Eustache in Paris and an off-angle bit of Mondrian, where the red/yellow/blue is accompanied by a slice of green, a color Mondrian is reputed to have loathed so much that he never allowed green, not even plants, in his house or studio. The glory is in these details. In his works on paper so much knowledge is displayed in his juxtapositions. And after appearing initially as cryptic, they begin to become apparent as the whole world, filled with micro- and macro- and art history and current natural catastrophe–the wonder of it all is captured with rare color and the touch of great drawing. Don Lewallen’s work draws its viewer in, at first to make sense of the puzzle of imagery, and then to understand there is a profound philosophy at play here. As the artist has said in his studio, making this work has made him love life. And it is in this respect that one sees the significance of his choices, both the lyrical and artistically crafted way of drawing and of selecting shapes and colors to render, and the surreal–in this case what I interpret as a facet of surrealism which is to question anything as “known” and to keep open-ended the very contemporary understandings that contradictions permeate our real world, and we live among contrasting elements–it is our reality to do so. The process of making these come to life through art is what the artist is doing. He is loving life, as it is given, not systematizing it, nor judging it, but in representing the breadth of experiential possibilities. It is a work that lauds diversity, and finds no difficulty in embracing and connecting what apparently does not “go together.” This is a fresh body of work, of our times, bringing the standards of our own history into a new light.
– Elizabeth Weatherford 2022
For Don Lewallen, arranging colors on a flat surface has never been preliminary to anything. His paintings declare their essentialness. Such is the primal appeal of his painting, that he gives us just colors and shapes. Increasingly, he fills the spaces between the shapes. There is an element of chaos in the work; it’s understandable that he titled his exhibition “Origins of the Universe.” Scientists have given us splendid interpretations of that long-ago occurrence, the excitement of which never fails to resonate.
Abstract Expressionists, whom Lewallen unhesitatingly acknowledges as a lasting influence, found themselves in a present-at-the-creation stance. They were helped by writers who wanted them to have a larger reason for what they were doing than merely laying down color on flat surfaces. The painter was instead at the center of an ‘arena for action’ and his spontaneous of-the-moment feelings and impulses became the subject matter. These actions that continually reaffirm one’s self ideally mimic in microcosm the birth of the universe, especially if one believes along with the Eastern philosophies that the universe recreates itself every minute.
Fifty years on from Abstract Expressionism Lewallen takes some of the self out of the painting and gives color and form a semi-autonomy. More than self-expression, he is interested in the event of color and form and how they play out together. His linear imagery is getting increasingly assertive and gestural but it’s not intended to contain deep-seated emotion. Lewallen likes its “fresh physicality.” The linear elements help animate his circles and contibute to the sense of high excitement that he says is shared by art and the concept of the origins of the universe.
He’s using a broader conceptual canvas than most Abstract Expressionists did by bringing cosmos into his scheme. Gottlieb and Newman did use this grand theme in different ways. But Lewallen doesn’t rely on subject matter: the universe and the order and chaos in it are essentially a framework that heightens the very palpable sensation of paint being applied to canvas.
Lewallen’s progression over the past few years shows an accelerated move from recognizable yet exotic landscapes in which the land forms were inspired by Chinese scholar’s rocks. Each shape was livened internally with a pattern of marks. The move to the heavens was a major one. More varied kinds of matter coexisted in a single painting, but the space between the forms was still a void. The newest paintings reverse this; the circular forms started out as monochromatic and the gestural forms invaded the exterior space creating the almost literal fields. Recently the circles themselves have gotten painterly and more vital, and in some instances the small gestural marks have gotten bolder and have begun to overwhelm the once inviolable circles. This ratcheting up of the “action” is deliberate in an artist who aims to provoke both visceral and retinal excitement.
Two of Wallace Steven’s rules for poetry were that it must be abstract and it must give pleasure. The giving of pleasure is one of Lewallen’s aims; otherwise his pyrotechnics wouldn’t take on such seductive coloring. He provokes a hedonistic excitement. It’s not surprising that he admires Matisse, who attracted the epithet “luxe, calme et volupté.” Don Lewallen readily subscribes to the luxury and voluptuousness. The calm is something else.
– William Zimmer 2002