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A Painter in the City
Countless painters have treated the ever-changing New York cityscape as one of their prime subjects. In the early years of the 20th century, Ash Can School artists like John Sloan, George Luks, and William Glackens, painted street scenes, and slices of neighborhood life, without glamorizing or sentimentalizing them. Sloan in paintings like Sixth Avenue El at 3rd Street emphasized subject over craft, and believed that “an interest in things is and always was at the root of art.” And through the 20th century, painters like George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, Georgia O’Keefe, Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, Jacob Lawrence, and even the young Mark Rothko made the city, from Coney Island to Harlem, their subject.
Lately, I have attended a number of Chelsea gallery shows that feature painters who, in styles ranging from photo-realism to surrealism, have made the city’s buildings, streets, people, and atmosphere—weather, color, light and shadow—the subject of their work. In fact, the cityscape in recent years has become a more popular subject than landscape, at least in New York galleries. Most likely, according to West Chelsea gallery owner George Billis, because New Yorkers have become much more conscious of how beautiful and alive the cityscape is. Also, he says, because tourists want to buy paintings that preserve “a piece” of their New York visit, which these days often can be a memorable one.
At his George Billis Gallery ( 511 W 25th St.), my wife and I recently saw an impressive exhibit of James A. Willis’ striking New York cityscape paintings (only his second show). While leaving we ran into Willis, a vibrant, bearded, compactly built, enormously verbal man in his forties. I asked if I could interview him about his life and work. And a week later he spoke to me about growing up privileged in a small town in Georgia (his parents were its leading citizens) where he learned to draw from comic books like Spiderman. He came to New York twenty years ago or so on a visit, and feeling liberated by its anonymity and its “vibes” (“smells, sounds, and things one sees”) made it his permanent home—“the place I always want to be.”
Willis studied at the venerable Art Students League, and felt he learned a great deal there, but saw himself as limited by their emphasis on traditional techniques and exact representation and got away quickly—back to learning on his own. Over the years he has run successful animation and graphic design businesses, but his deepest commitment has been to his painting—treating his West Chelsea studio as his “church,” where he often works through the night.
He paints directly from what he sees on the street, and from the photographs he takes—8,000 in the past 41/2 months. Willis walks the streets of Manhattan day and night with his camera, wearing the heels off a pair of boots. He wanders the city not with the idea of finding an image, but immersing himself in the moment-by-moment experience (he sees no “separation between himself and the city”)—with the painting as a by-product.
Willis is not interested in having his paintings tell a story or make political or social statements, but in their capturing the city’s formal patterns. He loves the work of post-impressionists like Bonnard, and though his style is much more gestural and expressionistic than the Ash Can painters, they share the same “muse”: the city. Though Willis says it’s hard to say “that anyone actually influenced me on a conscious level— hopefully, everyone I see influences me subconsciously.”
One of the central motifs of his work is the relationship of pedestrians to city traffic — his paintings freezing the city’s movement and dynamism. Also his work conveys a lush sensuality: “I’m mesmerized by the reflection of headlights on wet asphalt at 2 A.M.” Some of his urban paintings can be viewed as metaphors of a city where the violent, even the apocalyptic, can be an integral part of our daily life. But that’s not Willis’ intent. He merely wants to capture the color, the light, and exhilarating agitation of the city. Willis is a keen observer who can draw brilliantly, but he’s never satisfied with verisimilitude. In his paintings he wants to evoke the feeling of walking in the city by, in his words, “including the viewer peripherally in the event so he feels like he is on the edge of it.”
There are many thousands of painters like James Willis working in the city, and a remarkable number of them are painting cityscapes. But though I’m not an art critic, I see something unique in his gift for evoking the city as “a living, breathing subject.” And good as his work is, I have a feeling he has just scratched the surface of his potential.