Posted on the wall of Elizabeth Moss Galleries is a statement by painter Richard Brown Lethem that explains his process. Brown notes his use of the Surrealist technique “automatic writing.” He tries to free himself from conscious intention and lets his subconscious thoughts lead the way. In other words, he tries not to have a road map or predetermined ideas about his imagery. He wants to be surprised by his what he creates. This approach fits the look of the energetic, spontaneous and often logic-defying work. Lethem’s paintings are bold and open to conflict: Bright spots and happy gestures appear next to dark marks or dangerous figures.

Lethem’s thumbnail description of his work feels right. It’s an approach, not a contrived system of content. It opens the door to the imagery and the feeling of the work, which ranges from childlike playfulness to sexuality and fearsome figures. It finds love, connection to nature, wit and worry.

In a work like “Sudden Shadows,” we feel the gravity of the irrational. It’s a scene of painterly chaos. A skull – here, as Death’s head – comes into focus in the upper right. There is something like a giant eye in the upper left. A thick black form swells from the skull to the lower left, a woman’s black leg jutting up from it. It’s a world of swirling veils of pink, green and orange. Some forms come into view as objects. Others remain abstract and painterly.

“Ocean of Light” is a large horizontal work that maintains a parchment-colored ground and acts like a drawing. Color is muted. There is a smeary sunflower, a green boot on an otherwise drawn and naked cowboy (the hat) in profile. A figure, a baby we can probably assume, nurses at its mother’s breast. We see a horse, a coyote and the written title within the work. It could be a Western scene, but for the whale’s tail and the word “FULL” written in block letters at the top, indicating we’re looking at an ocean and not a desert. A red hammer pounds a fake nail into the wood-like painted bands that run along the bottom of the canvas. “Ocean” might not sound like it fits the title, but the image ebbs, flows and swells like waves and tide, ever-churning and restless, not unlike the human mind.

“Wheels,” acrylic on canvas, 44 by 54 inches.

Lethem’s smaller works tend to appear as more straightforward figures. We see a monkey, sharp and playfully intelligent, making a painting of a bird perched on its foot. It’s loaded with witty references (think infinite monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare, for example), but Lethem’s multiple perspectives on the idea of perspective (viewer, artist, proximity to nature, chance, creativity, animalism, etc) are jungle thick and therefore patently impenetrable. This isn’t the stuff that merely looks like content; it’s rich with it, but so much so that we aren’t really challenged to find something that looks like a single, focused punchline.

The strongest work in the show might be “Yoaked,” the simplest of Lethem’s color-soaked paintings. A cowboy-like man wraps his arm around his yellow and green horse. The reliance on Marc Chagall is apparent but appealing. (Indeed, among the recognizable influences, including Beckmann and Guston, Chagall is the most obvious in “Process.”) The Americanness of the cowboy (an archetype in Lethem’s painterly universe) feels like a tilt of the hat to Chagall’s overt relating of his Jewish and Russian leitmotifs. “Yoaked” goes deep with the connection of American culture to nature. He shares Chagall’s proto-Surrealist approach, but Lethem’s Quakerism and ties to American moral, philosophical and popular culture take his work in very different directions.

“Yoaked,” oil on canvas, 36 by 40 inches.

Lethem includes a pair of smaller works that have the look of Egon Schiele’s figure drawings; writhing, tense and exposed but nonetheless sensuous in their brazen intimacy. On the other side, Lethem includes “Wheels,” a carnival-esque gravity race among four kids, each of whose car is identified by a fruit: oranges, apples, peaches and bananas. Again, it’s a swirling scene of chaos. (Lethem’s swirly style is the direct result of loose, freehand drawing and it matches the content of his work perfectly.) As the piece is in the gallery window, we can read the back of the canvas on which Lethem wrote: “YIPPY AI OH KAYAY / BANANA WIPES OUT / PEACHES LOST WHEEL SPARKS / APPLES POINTS A FINGER / WHILE ORANGES CROSSES THE LINE.” It’s a succinct description of the narrative, but it’s a scene driven primarily by energy – wild and fun. We have to wonder if this is how Lethem understands the human thought process. So many ideas, inclinations and impulses compete to cross the line of consciousness, but in the end, we tend to think that we think in linear narratives with just the winningest of thoughts. And more than a model of thought, this is a model of culture in which the winners take the stage.

Lethem’s paintings are powerful. They are also ideal illustrations of the leading American myth of artistic culture which follows Surrealism through Abstract Expressionism and which ascended to the world’s stage with the United States’ military, economic and cultural victories of World War II.

So, what is culture?

In a nutshell, culture is what we think it is. Or, better maybe, culture is largely what we imagine it to be. Nowhere is this more apparent than in America. After all, from even before the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, the idea of the New World – the site of our country – the idea of self-determinism was put into play. This romantic notion has always been at the core of American culture. It drove us to free ourselves from England. It motivated Frederic Church to trek to and paint Katahdin in 1853. It fueled Henry David Thoreau’s 1864 “The Maine Woods.” It is the takeaway from Winslow Homer’s weatherbeaten Maine paintings. And, importantly, it gave us Horatio Alger and the stories of riches started on a shoestring.

This idea is now how Americans understand art. But before World War II, we looked to Europe and its sense of historical progression. Art looked to the previous generation and either surpassed it or rejected it; either way, however, was a path of sophistication and critical insight about current and previous culture.

The American model, however, is about the self. We generally think the key to art is authentic originality, and that the source is not culture but the self of the artist. Sigmund Freud’s insights about the mind (the unconscious, the subconscious, etc.) aligned perfectly with the American myth of artistic culture. Surrealism made sense to us, and we welcomed it with open arms. Abstract Expressionism followed this logic of internal content, but it shied away from imagery, making it more palatable to the public – and far more marketable: The buyer, after all, didn’t have to know art history or even be able to verbalize the content of the work. It just had to feel right and have direct appeal to them.

Lethem’s work relies on the streams of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, but it is driven by honesty. Lethem is afraid of nothing: not darkness, not fear, not sexuality and certainly not fun. His work is often difficult, but it is always powerful and never compromises on personal integrity.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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