Strength manifests itself in many ways, and for the keen of eye, it can be observed in often the most subtle manner. A spark in someone's eye or a resilience palpable in the soul yet ostensibly unseen on the surface, the idea of strength goes far beyond its typical associations-that of robust physical build or a hardiness in attitude. New York-based artist J. Louis captures this through his figurative expressionist works of the female form. Though the figures are rendered soft and delicate, one thing is abundantly certain: these women, in their repose, exude self-assuredness, whether through their unflinching gaze or the comfort they seem to hold in their own bodies.
"I want people to be hit by the incredible women in my life. I want people to see that women are strong in these dreamy states, that they aren't helpless in any way," says Louis. He cites his mother and wife among his greatest inspirations. "Throughout my life I've been inspired by these strong feminine figures who've supported me…One of the reasons I paint women is to understand them," he says. "Since meeting [my wife], traveling the world, just being together, I've been hit with how she handles life…She is really empathetic and I appreciate that about her."
Weightless In A Heavy Space depicts a woman lying on the floor with her legs up against the wall on the right side of the composition, her dark hair flowing like waves out of frame on the left. This is the only painting of Louis' wife in the exhibition. "Those are always very special to me," the artist says. He doesn't take on the task often, however, finding it difficult to "capture her essence perfectly. I'd never finish a show if they were all of her," he says.
Louis' paintings blend various artistic styles, and while the artist says he used to be concerned with defining himself and his style, nowadays, he'd like to do just the opposite, allowing intuition and creative freedom to take over. The backgrounds of his artwork channel expressionist vibes with textured surfaces and clearly defined brushstrokes, utilizing multiple layers of paint and scraping them away until the desired aesthetic is achieved.
The idea for this body of work, Louis says, is to create this "very dreamy space," perhaps waking viewers up to a concept less often pondered-that qualities like softness and tenderness do not equal weakness. "I'm trying to get that feeling in my work-of amazement and empowerment-that there's something really special and there's always something new to uncover about [a person]."
He says that he hopes these works create a misty, ethereal ambiance. "They're right in front of you, but they're also from another world…I wanted to create a show that's all about that idea of dreaming, being off in another world and experiencing this surreal moment."
Paintings like Drawing Lines, Roller Coaster, and Open And Closed are grounded in some sense of reality, but appear subtly warped and otherworldly. .The women in each piece hold themselves with a sense of ease, their gazes focused upon something we, the viewer, cannot see. Aspects of their form-an outstretched arm or long hair across the floor-create beautiful, elongated lines within the compositions, and where they lead is a mystery waiting to be uncovered.
The process of creating Louis' delicate dreamscapes is lengthy but worth the effort. He begins with thumbnail sketches that map out the mood he's going for, then sets up a photo shoot with his models, often friends or people he knows can help capture the mood he's envisioned, and takes reference images. For this particular body of work, Louis says he even hired a makeup artist, hair stylist and lighting assistant. After a shoot is finished, he lets the photos sit for a few days without reviewing them, returning to them later with fresher eyes, more removed from the heightened emotions or biases formed during the initial shoot. After that, the images undergo what Louis says is a great deal of digital editing until they feel right. The whole production is a jumping off point for when he picks up his paintbrush.
"I have always drawn, even at age 4…and I had always been fairly skilled at representing things on a 2D surface," Louis recalls. Creativity came easy to him, and although he took AP art classes throughout high school, it was his prowess in soccer that provided him a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia (and he almost made it onto the U.S. men's national team). "Most people don't know if they can make it as an artist, so while doing art, I was focusing on sports as well," he says. And while he played soccer during college and eventually earned his BFA in industrial design in 2015, Louis says that throughout his schooling, he never stopped painting. He explains that he would ask people to bring him materials and, in exchange, would paint for them for free, simply so he could create. "Any time I wasn't studying or practicing [soccer], that's what I was doing," Louis says. Eventually, he began showing at Shain Gallery in North Carolina, and after having his first solo, his art career took off from there.
However, it was only after getting married that Louis says he began working in the subject matter he's known for today, having started out painting mostly wildlife and landscapes. "But it was always there…Everyone thought I was crazy for switching to figurative work because it's notoriously hard," he says, adding that he knew intuitively that he needed to venture out in a new direction. "At that, I'm always exploring what will be next. I don't plan on leaving figurative drawing any time soon…but I'm about to [release] figurative sculptures in this show."
For the first time, Louis will be showing his sculptures to the public in addition to his two-dimensional works. While completed within the past year, the concepts for many of them took root in his mind as far back as six or seven years ago, taking time to allow the ideas to grow and mature until they reached a stage at which he felt ready to act upon them. Cast in resin with pure pigment laid over the top, each sculpture complements four of his larger-scale paintings in the show. The artist says he isn't sure if anyone else has treated sculpture in quite the same way, with the application of pure pigments, giving the objects such intense vibrancy in their colors that they can only be truly appreciated in person.
ALYSSA M TIDWELL, American Art Collector