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A Tale of Two Openings: Spencer Lewis and RJ Messineo

A friend—not sure if we’re still friends because we ended up getting into a disagreement that moved me quite strongly—asked the other day what happens at an art opening. As per usual when someone asks me a question whose answer I think quite obvious I snap. He just wanted to understand a little about the art world, something he knows nothing about. Something I know a little about. Perhaps I should feel grateful for knowing even a little.

For those of you new to art, an art opening is when a gallery presents a new body of work by an artist or a group of artists. Often times this is the public’s first viewing of this work grouped together. Many times the work is brand new. Sometimes the art is from an artist’s collection that’s been around for some time. A show could last anywhere from a week to a few months. It’s an unveiling. A launch. A new beginning.

People come to see the art. They mingle. Talk about the art, about what’s going on in the world. Sometimes beverages are served. Sometimes there’s a dinner or drinks thing after if you’re bold enough to stick around and lucky enough to be invited. A community grows.

I’m new to this game. I often wonder how I’m doing. It’s a little like dating. You have to put yourself out there, put yourself on the line, and maybe embarrass yourself a bit. So far all I’ve done is mumble some hellos and given a few nods, exquisitely staying quite safe inside my little world. I’m definitely not leading with my heart.

Last night I attended Spencer Lewis’s “On Valentines” and RJ Messineo’s “Gold Gold”, both at Canada. There were a few opportunities for me to engage with other attendees, to understand their perspective, but I held back. And unlike the previous openings I’ve attended so far, even the art and I did not completely click. It was a bit lonely. Not the best third date.

I’m a fan of Lewis’s abstract paintings that he’s mostly known for, and Untitled from 2021, in the main room of Lewis’s exhibition space, did what needed to be done in giving us classic Lewis. It’s a great composition, mostly a mass hovering in the middle reaching out to us, inviting us into its gorgeous chaos. But the main purpose of this exhibition is to introduce us to Lewis’s large scale sculptures. Untitled from 2021 and Desk both felt fully expressed, while the others seemed more like installations in process with already existing paintings. And this is my main issue with both Lewis’s and Messineo’s exhibitions. They showed both artists’ processes rather than deliver us a fully realized show of completed art objects that the audience could get to know.

Desk seemed like a journey into an artist’s process. A thrilling Bronze relief on one side and on the other side, perhaps a peep into how the sausage gets made. Or a safe space that an artist can retreat, safe behind the laurels of his previous works. The Untitled sculpture reminded me of self portrait, and if this is a portrait of an artist at his prime, what is it saying about him? That he’s split in two, or that putting yourself out there and revealing something new feels like your insides exploding? Regardless, the work felt like being inside one of Lewis’s painting and I quite enjoyed the ride. Both sculptures reside with the Untitled, 2019-21, sculpture and two paintings in a room that felt a bit claustrophobic. I would like to have seen the works, especially Desk in a larger space, but perhaps the curators wanted viewers to feel the tension that artists can sometimes feel being alone, sometimes in small spaces, with our work. If this show represents Lewis’s process, I look forward to seeing more sculptures from him in the future.

Messineo’s best work hangs near the gallery entrance, Plane Tree, immediately across from Lewis’s sculptural mixed media painting Untitled. Both showed constraint as well as cohesive ties to each artists’ respective oeuvres. Plane Tree contains most of the elements of Messineo’s other works in the show but it feels more finished and compositionally sound. The rest of the other works are much larger, some almost as tall the gallery itself. The paintings evoke the light outside of Messineo’s studio. They certainly have a very masculine perspective. I’m at peace with sunsets and beautiful light, but these paintings I struggled with. I found some of them forced with the color, especially Bloom. There’s a gentle lovingness in Plane Tree that you just don’t find in the other works. I wonder if Messineo had spent more time on the larger paintings, developing layers and texture like in Plane Tree if they might have been more compelling.

There’s another small painting of Messineo’s in the front office, Yet to be titled. Another small work. And although it seems to have little to do with the other works in the show, I wonder if this might be a transition to his next group of work. It’s a playful composition with heavy texture and both warm and cool tones. If some of the larger works are void of energy, this one bursts with passion and whimsy. It’s almost a sign for me of what to do next, to be outrageous and to go against everything else I know.

Like I said, I’m new to this writing about other artists and being a part of the art world. To want to be a part of something bigger than our own person might be humankind’s greatest desire. So here I am, a forty-something artist who, although has been making work for close to ten years, has mostly hidden safely inside his own making. It takes some ovaries to get out there and be vulnerable, open yourself up to others and share your unique perspective. Sometimes you have to ring out your heart to others, leave some blood on the floor, before you can belong and grow.

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