Just as my father stood, inevitably, as my first and defining example of creative adamancy, of the thoroughness and persistence of good artistic practice, his paintings themselves have stood as a collective working model of consciousness, of the artist’s imaginative embrace of his or her material. I learned to think by watching my father paint.
PORTLAND, ME – This testimonial appears in the opening paragraph of “On Richard Brown Lethem” in The Outlaw Bible of American Art, a collection of essays and images edited by Alan Kaufman. Last Gasp, the book’s publisher, calls the 2016 compendium a “Who’s Who alternative canon of marginalized or famed autodidactic paint-slinging loners who followed their own outrageous, sometimes catastrophic visions to the heights of fame or the depths of Hell.”
Lethem père is a good fit for this company. He has consistently followed his own muse, critics be damned. He has freely mixed figurative with abstract, unwilling to align himself to any school or ism. From early on he channeled the expressionist energy of de Kooning, while conjuring the spirit of Guston. As poet William Corbett put it in an essay for the 2014 show Richard Brown Lethem: Figure ↔ Abstraction at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, Lethem, like Guston, “has given himself to every impulse.”
The Outlaw Bible is displayed in a glass case in the middle of the two-part Richard Brown Lethem exhibition at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Maine. In all respects, the work on view is “a collective working model of consciousness” and reflects Lethem’s imaginative and compelling embrace of his material, be it the injustices of the modern world or memories of Nebraska.
The thirteen paintings in the section titled Afflictions offer testimony to Lethem as political and social commentator. Painted between 1985 and 2010, these images reflect, in a bold and often visceral manner, the artist’s response to a range of disquieting issues, such as the Iraq War, pollution, addiction, and CIA/School of the Americas activities in Latin America.
Lethem has supplied a short legend to go with each painting in the group. One of the earliest pieces, “Eerie Basin,” 1985, depicting a man in a gas mask dumping oily sludge out of a garbage pail, is captioned, “In the canal, what goes down must come up.” While bringing to mind despoliation of the Love Canal kind, Lethem’s dark image might be an illustration for the environmental edition of Dante’s Inferno. The scrawny figure, in white gloves, looks at once terrified and guilty in his chamber of horrors.
“Falling Red Hat,” 1991, takes on mob violence, referencing the infamous lynching and burning of Raymond Gunn in Maryville, Missouri, in January 1931. A line of distorted white male faces at the top represents the rabble that overcame the sheriff and bore Gunn to his gruesome death, while a red hat and body parts tumble through the air. You don’t need to know the story to sense the ugliness of spirit.
The most recent painting in the Afflictions series is 2010’s “Refugee.” A figure clutching her hands together in a sign of prayer and desperation wears a head scarf that might double as a bandage, bearing the Red Cross emblem. “War, famine and the despot … where does she find asylum?” Lethem asks in the accompanying caption. The imagery provides the answer: For the time being, underneath the bright red cross painted on the cloth that barely covers her ravaged visage.
The notion of affliction carries over into the second part of the show, comprising selections from Lethem’s new series, Nebraska Triangle. Painted over the past three years, this work was inspired by the “remembered prairie landscape” of Lethem’s childhood in Republican City, Nebraska, and his research into the culture and lives of the Lakota and Oglala Sioux Indians, whose land it once was. Their “fierce, beautiful and grounded life style,” Lethem states, “developed a respect for Mother Earth, with a sustainable agriculture, a generous reciprocity with the natural world, and an enviable spiritual depth.”
In several pieces Lethem directly references the destruction brought about by the U.S. Government to the Plains tribes. In “Worthless Treaty, 1877,” 2017, a small scroll bearing the year 1877 emerges from a dark red background that evokes blood-stained earth. The infamous Agreement of 1877 officially confiscated Sioux land while permanently establishing Indian reservations. Lethem’s representation of injustice seems doubly relevant in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the recent dismantling of Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
The painting “Hides,” 2016, consists of what appear to be ten thick animal skins stacked in an even pile set on a flat horizon line. The simplicity and looseness of the rendering brings Guston to mind – that ability to bring resonance to the humblest of object. Elsewhere, the twisting black shape in “Smoke” hints at some distant conflagration – presumably the burning of an Indian village or maybe the signal of surrender.
The triangular teepee shape that appears in several paintings, including “Power Dream” and “Mirage,” both 2016, is a visual device similar to that found in Robert Neuman’s Lame Deer series, which arose out of a similar recognition of Native American history. Lethem, like Neuman (1926-2015), approaches this charged material with a double purpose: to raise awareness of wrongs and to create a way of perceiving history using expressionist means. The three-lined shape symbolizes the fragility of existence, but also tribal endurance.
Jonathan Lethem says he learned to think by watching his father paint. The work in this exhibition inspires viewers to think, as well: about various human and environmental miseries and a haunted landscape, and about how this renegade painter, who turns 84 this year, deploys a passionate brush to bring them to the fore.
Richard Brown Lethem continues at the Maine Jewish Museum (267 Congress Street, Portland, Maine) through July 5.