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John Lees

“John Lees: New Work,” at Betty Cuningham Gallery (through May 22): Looking as if they’ve been painted up, sanded down, rubbed into, scraped away, tossed about, kicked around, and painted up again (and again and again), John Lees’s paintings, on view now at Betty Cuningham Gallery on the Lower East Side, are unkempt to the extreme. Their surfaces often rudely emerge into our physical space in low relief—see the near lip of an old-timey, free-standing bathtub, worked on from 1972 to 2010. It’s an effect that could easily descend into gimmick, but in Lees’s hands the brunt physicality also leaves room for delicate vision. (A similar thing to that bathtub lip is happening in the foreground at the bottom edge of his Pond, painted from 1991–93 and then 2011–2012, but to a more numinous and visionary effect.) Though never overtly invoked, a diverse suite of painterly precedents sprung to my mind when looking through the show: primarily Nabis like Ker-Xavier Roussel and Maurice Denis; but also early Florentines (in the bust-length portraits); Albert Pinkham Ryder (in their occasionally jewel-like, knobby, densely-glazed surfaces); Antoine Watteau; Antonio López García; post-Nabi Bonnard (in the more colorful, panoramic outdoor scenes); late Monet; and several others.