Art New England, ApR/MAY 2001
New England College Gallery
Henniker, New Hampshire
By Craig Stockwell
I walked into this exhibition of abstract/figurative paintings and immediately thought; this is the work of a man. This man is nearing sixty. Does this quickly grasped image speak well for the work or against it?
It speaks well in this sense: this is a man doing the work of his condition exquisitely. This man knows how to paint and draw. Particularly draw. These paintings have achieved the very difficult sense of having been painted quickly and decisively and yet also of having been worked on for months. “The Beekeeper Panics” depicts an enraged man swinging an overhead axe at a group of dancing, menacing handsaws that surround him. The claustrophobic rage that inhabits this painting and the visceral feel of the menace and response are very powerful, the drawing of the saws render them beautifully ambiguous between their hardness and their animal like reality, aliveness. The color and image are personal and fresh. This painting exemplifies the skill with which Lethem addresses throughout the range of feelings of a man deeply exploring the human condition.
What speaks against the work is the feeling of a man stuck in his condition. These paintings express the feelings of a stuck man. Much of the work is explicitly about rage, intimacy, aging, and dying. These are deeply human issues. This mode of painting: gestural-abstract figuration has a well-worked history. A well worked history means that much of the vocabulary, the tortured figures, the heavily worked paint, has become cliched. When vocabulary becomes cliched it loses meaning and becomes superficial. When a superficial language is employed to speak of the deepest of human issues it can become offensive. This is the problem these paintings raise.