Barton Lewis: The Many Pleasures

Published on 06/30/ 2024

Post No Bills: Art and Advertising on the Street

Essay by Kathleen Hulser

Our world is layered; why not peel it back? The Many Pleasures celebrates the irresistible urge to find and make art of our everyday surroundings, a pastime that flourishes in neighborhoods with abandoned buildings useful only as billboard stands, construction projects enclosed by green fences, and the ad-lined corridors of subway stations. Barton Lewis’s closely observed advertising posters, altered by weathering but more often by strategic slashing, tearing, and scribbling, document widespread creative impulses. Engagement in the city brings out the artist in everyone.

Lewis embraces the casual visual encounters that constitute the exciting realm of street art, far from the gallery and museum but close to the eyes of the urban stroller. In subway stations the white tiles frame the art, a natural gallery constantly altered with new and deteriorated ads, and intentionally defaced posters. Here tension crackles between accidental weathering and deliberate alterations practiced by insomniac would-be artists armed with box cutters, scrapers, and Sharpies. Lewis’s current collection comes in two series: Wall Cuts and Urban Topographies, the latter including relay mailboxes, building facades, and construction fences.

Born in Illinois, Barton Lewis is a slim, vigorous Brooklynite who enjoys New York City’s varied streetscapes. Highly observant, with oodles of photographic chops, he laser focuses on phenomena that usually have a subliminal impact. He adopts the code of the flaneûr, those cosmopolitan observers of the city. As the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, “For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” Lewis’s own fascination with art and randomness has led him to prowl the city in search of inadvertent art including advertising stands, mailboxes, construction fences, doorways, gates, and vintage signs.

Originally a filmmaker, he shot the short film wall cuts, train stations, New York City on his classic Arriflex Super 16 camera. He edited his footage at Millennium Film Workshop in the East Village, long a mecca for experimental filmmakers, run for forty years by Howard Guttenplan, honored at the end of the film. Giants of the avant-garde such as Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Ken Jacobs, and Carolee Schneeman screened and/or edited their independent films there.

The film begins with highly abstract posters, leavings speckled in the expressive old glue palette of yellow, gray, and muddy black. Occasional gobs of poster paper resolutely hang on. In other shots, we witness more deliberate slashing. A basketball hero’s head looms large over dramatic tears in a poster that includes a sticker reading “Broken Guru.” Meanwhile, the live soundtrack features wheezing brakes, clacking train arrivals, incoherent conductor announcements, and shards of conversation like “I love you,” echoing as the subway train leaves the station. The film presages key themes of the photographs in The Many Pleasures, which Lewis has been capturing since 2018.

Lewis explains, “A collector suggested doing still photography as a large-scale subgenre of the moving image.” And indeed, we do the moving on the street and the imagery is still. The artist has curated the still images in The Many Pleasures “intuitively, based on what looks best.” On his scouting expeditions, people often ask what he’s doing, including the police. One time he was crouched behind his camera as light hit a Bushwick building just right. A patrol-car window rolled down and a policeman asked what he was doing. “Oh, you’re an artist,” he responded, after Lewis briefly explained, and drove off.

This marvelous eavesdropping on the visual unfolds in sumptuous images, often sewn together digitally from multiple shots. “I composite each wall cut from approximately twelve to eighteen shots,” he says. “Larger images can involve considerably more.” Some of the subway wall cuts stretch fourteen feet or more. At times Lewis stitches ad-covered columns into a forest of pillars. On occasion he has peeled some paper himself, but mostly his images document the alternation between random weathering and deliberate interventions by anonymous urban artists.

Read the entirety of Kathleen Hulser's essay in Barton lewis' The Many Pleaseures: Found Art in New York City

Barton Lewis

Barton Lewis is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and photographer  whose work centers around features and fixtures of the street and subway transformed by street artists and organic decay. His work has been featured in the The Harvard Business Review, and exhibited in spaces such as Gallery 85, in the lobby of Google’s New York headquarters. His work has been shown in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Szczecin, Poland and elsewhere in the US and Europe.

Kathleen Hulser 

Kathleen Hulser is a public historian, involved in many interdisciplinary art projects, from museum shows to augmented reality walking tours to cultural events. For 11 years she was public historian at the New York Historical Society, where she curated or co-curated shows including Up on A Roof, New York City's Fiscal Crisis, Slavery in New York, Legacies: Artists Reflect on Slavery and Nueva York.