Published by Chicago Art Magazine on February 15, 2012, in Articles, Featured
By Ashley Frick
Imagine works by Warhol and Lichtenstein with the attitude of an early Rockwell. There’s no sarcasm, no irony, nor devaluation of American culture. Instead, you find an aura of the keepsake, something special and shrouded in memory, elevating this culture in a preservationist manner. Through her technique of “sculpted oils,” Leslie Lew does just this; her outlook on what many deem “throwaway” materials – comic books, children’s readers, and product advertisements – is simultaneously nostalgic and documentary. Using icons like Wonder Woman or Dick and Jane, Leslie reaches back through the pendulum of American culture, wringing out childlike moments that many have too-soon forgotten. A recent addition to the Park West Gallery family of artists, Leslie is able to hold up a cultural mirror to a new generation of Americans, disseminating her work through multiple continents and a spectrum of families, collectors, art buffs, and enthusiasts.
Leslie’s work is dual-faceted. Growing up within the world of advertising with a strong sense of art history, her paintings include subjects from Baby Boomer pulp fiction to homage to renaissance and modern masters. From cereal boxes to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Leslie paints a full thematic spectrum. Her father, Les Hopkins, was a notorious Chicago artist-turned-ad executive at J. Walter Thompson, responsible for popular campaigns like the Smackin’ Brothers (Sugar Smacks Cereal), the Marlboro Man, and memorable Alka-Seltzer spots. Leslie and her father were very close. She recalls watching him work at night with his perfectly kept Pantone markers, envisioning his next characters. When the markers began to wear, Leslie became their happy new owner, starting her drawing career as just a small child. Her father introduced her to two of her main influences, Peter Max and Norman Rockwell, through his collection of posters – her gateway into the art world. In addition to Max and Rockwell are Andy Warhol and Fra Filippo Lippi, her “artistic superheroes.”
It’s easy to see how Leslie is inspired by some of these artistic giants. She and Warhol pull from the same kind of packaged material from soup cans to animal cracker packaging. The difference is the sentiment. Leslie’s sculpted oil, Animal Crackers, aims to elevate our sense of American history and culture in her representations, not devalue it. She gently nods at the craft and creativity of the era, a tribute to her father. And, like Rockwell, she reflects on the images she grew up with, a reflection of a modern culture.
While she was born in New York and, once again, resides there today, Leslie considers herself a Chicagoan. From the ages of eleven through thirty, her home was the Windy City, spending her key formative years here. She attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for her Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts, the beginning of her life as a professional artist. While at the SAIC, Leslie was initially given a hard time for her paintings being “too pretty.” Her professors were very into conceptual art, not beautiful landscapes en plein aire like she had been painting until then. She spent three summers in Florence, mesmerized by the work of Fra Filippo Lippi and he began to significantly influence her style. She knew she enjoyed teasing-out details and had been experimenting with etching. This led her to a key moment in her life: the development of the supermarket paintings. Calling on inspiration from her father’s advertisements, Leslie used her desire for the details to project her vision of the supermarket, a conglomeration of pop culture and consumer products of assorted shapes, sizes, and colors. This was a very personal place to her – somewhere to which she felt a deep attachment. These paintings reflected this importance, too, used for her portfolio submission to graduate school, but more significantly, this was the beginning of her signature style, her sculpted oils.
Sculpted oils, surprisingly enough, consist only of paint. There is no sculptural support, no cardboard, Styrofoam, or any other medium. Some of these paintings weigh upwards of one hundred pounds – that’s one hundred pounds of solid paint. After she sketches a very detailed drawing on the canvas, Leslie begins with a layer of titanium white acrylic paint, creating the high relief surface for her oils. And since the idea began with the supermarket paintings, she would build-up the products, focusing all of the attention and detail on each tiny item. They began at an inch or two in relief, getting thicker and higher with each painting. While the paintings seemed to continuously grow in texture, the perspective of the images remained flat, just like the comics and ads by which they were inspired. This style found a home in Leslie’s oeuvre and she has been painting this way for more than thirty years.
While Leslie became famous for her work in the East Village, being in Chicago prepared her for her future transplant to New York. While at the SAIC under the advisement of Ray Yoshida, Leslie worked amidst the Hairy Who, a pop art styled collection of artists under the umbrella of the Chicago Imagists. While the more widely known movement of New York Pop Art made its mark in the 1960s, the Hairy Who existed simultaneously in Chicago, branching out in terms of subject and message. The Hairy Who artists, like the Pop Artists, used bright colors, pulp fiction, and popular culture – but their work was more surreal and fantastic, full of detail. Leslie was deeply inspired by these artists, particularly Roger Brown and Jim Nutt, and once she arrived in New York, her work already fit perfectly into the funky East Village scene.
After spending a summer semester in New York City, Leslie decided to pick up and move for good, transitioning to the East Village where she found great success. Her first solo exhibition was in 1985 at the Sensory Evolution Gallery. Before that year, Leslie had exhibited as an undergrad at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago but never by herself. From then on, Leslie exhibited in numerous galleries and museums, showing across the country and even in Bulgaria. Traveling in circles with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, Leslie was at the forefront of the wild and offbeat gallery scene, taking in the colors, styles, and graffiti.
Today at Park West Gallery, Leslie is finally able to expose her art to the masses. She feels that regardless of a person’s level of art education, pedigree, or profession, he or she should have the ability to collect. And Leslie’s interest in her “Rockwellian” values did not deter. Her sculpted oils have become brighter, more numerous, and cover more themes in pulp fiction and pop culture, and she has not lost her flare as a winking documentarian. Her images secretly smile back at their viewers, evoking that little piece of childhood, a sparkling burst of Americana to remind us where we’ve been.
(Originally posted at: http://chicagoartmagazine.com/2012/02/park-west-gallery-presents-leslie-lew-and-her-sculpted-oils/)