Since 2002, when he moved from a landscape-based style into rectilinear abstraction, oil painter G. Lewis Clevenger has been exploring the permutations of the grid. Working within defined parameters, he has evolved his style slowly but satisfyingly, introducing at least one new textural, compositional, or chromatic wrinkle into his schema with every successive show. In "New Paintings," the three-time Oregon Biennial selectee reaches for and attains his greatest expression of freedom and inventiveness to date. The breakthrough owes largely to the irregular diagonal lines and scrawly cross-hatching he infuses into his otherwise starchy squares and rectangles. In works such as Straw House and the aptly named Terra Nueva (New Ground), the graphic quality and thick sensuality of the lines takes on a volume more suggestive of Matisse's gouache cut-outs than Mondrian's grids. You can see the rigidity of Clevenger's formula giving way in Brick House, in a blue passage that starts out hard-edged but lightens and dissolves as it sweeps leftward. The squeegee-like, rubber-tipped knives that the artist paints with in lieu of brushes enable him to control the pressure and precision of his application, much as a calligrapher does by altering the angle of the nib. The artist clearly relishes these effects; he may even be having fun.
As in the past, Clevenger's inspiration derives from a long-standing interest in mid-century modernist architecture, in particular the ranch home. Nearly all his paintings' titles refer to homes, and in a sense, the compositions function as psychic blueprints into which viewers may project themselves, inhabiting the planes as if they were rooms. Indeed, there is something of a Richard Neutra/Palm Springs clarity in the color palette as well, with its bright, sunny blues, desert-like earth tones, and bracing jolts of palm-frond green. For all their vibrance, the colors are not monolithic in presentation, however. In Stick House, striations of chartreuse and orange peek out from under swaths of lavender, betraying layers of crackly, creamy texture that lend the pieces an air of weathering or excavation. Across the show as a whole, there is a feeling that the artist is increasingly willing to contemplate decay: to set up his immaculate grids, only to look on, knowingly, as their pure colors blanch and their pristine regularity degrades into chaos.
“Stick House,” 2008, G. Lewis Clevenger Oil on canvas, 30" x 221⁄2"
Photo: Dan Kvitka, Courtesy of Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery