There’s a series of windows on the side of Greenpoint Ave, it’s filled with a plethora of eye-catching art: a big canvas featuring a gentleman with a dour expression, accordion in hand, a smokey gray cat below him. A ventriloquist dummy turned to the side, a smaller frame with a chunky colorful clown, and a vertical painting of dark blue sea background, shades of green, cream making the exoskeleton of a fish. In the middle of the windows, a yellow rectangular sign reads “Window Gallery: howardlernerart.com.”
The art takes on a spooky quality that makes spectators both want to edge closer and look slightly away. It makes me want to know who Howard Lerner is.
Howard Lerner is not as spooky as his art entails. He wore black lined with yellow metric ruler suspenders with tools on them against a red polo shirt and gray slacks. They are as wonderfully quirky and unique as the owner himself. His disposition is welcoming and genial, especially as he offered me a bowl of cherries and orange seltzer.
The contrast is intriguing as the many stories Lerner has to tell. He is 69 years old and his life so far is filled with many stories and experiences.
Born in Middletown, Connecticut, Lerner developed his love of art by emulating his dad who would draw from magazines. His mother noticed and bought him art supplies and enrolled him in art classes. He was the visual child, his brother would go on to be a lawyer, or “the verbal,” as Lerner would say. Soon he would go to Boston University (BU) for their arts program. It was there he learned the classical approach to art. Eventually, he got tired of the traditional approach and went to graduate school at BU. At graduate school, he was taught and mentored by Philip Guston.
“[Art] keeps me focused, it’s something that I feel compelled to do…. I can make something that I feel strongly about, work on a subject matter that I connect to, the materials. It’s not just painting with a brush and paint,” said Lerner.
He moved up to NYC in 1982. He lived in the Lower East Side for a bit and then moved to Greenpoint. He bought a building, which he still owns (and rents out to tenants), with the help of his parents in 1986. The building used to be home to a Polish dance studio. Joan Whalen helped him with his first big gallery. Since then, his work has been exhibited in many New York galleries and museums, such as the Jewish Museum. He has sold his airplane sculpture at an antique shop and art gallery in Williamsburg. He has sold numerous paintings over the years, but not yet one of his newer painting collages.
His past shows have been in alternative spaces. The last show he did was in a church on the Upper West Side. He has been hoping to show the work he has been doing for about nine years.
The sheer size of his art demands attention — not only from the sheer size but from the subject matter. Lerner dabbles in the grotesque, with the ideas of the strange, the mysterious, and the fantastical.
In his artwork, there’s a common theme of animals (horses, cats, and cardinals), his love of all things vintage circus sideshows, and his Jewish identity and religion. Ever since he moved to NYC, sideshow banners have been an influence.
“Each painting for me has a storyline,” said Lerner. “It may not be a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. But it is a story”
Lerner thinks about his art and the story he wants to tell. Whether it’s about a conjurer/fortune teller, a red haired giant (based on Native American lore, or from two Black conjoined twins who evoke ideas of the Hindi yoga chant: “Kali Durge Namo Namah,” Lerner incorporates elements of different mythologies to construct his very own.
“Sometimes maybe being an artist…there was some disconnect that I had with other people” Lerner responded when asked about what drew him to the sideshow banners. He could relate to the figures at the circus and wanted to show that in his art. He liked that the people were different. Inspired by postcards of sideshow banners he owned, he contacted photographer Randal Levenson, whose name was listed. Levenson did the photographs for the book, In Search of the Monkey Girl by Spalding Gray. The book covers the lives of carnival people.
He noticed that those photographs are “American art that’s hardly ever mentioned” and should be of “major importance.” Now Lerner says there is a term for those type of photographs called outsider art. Outsider art, Lerner explains, is not the mainstream. So by that definition, his art could be considered that, though another element of outsider art is being self taught. Lerner has years of schooling that says otherwise, but the vibes and essence of his work is one of an outsider. He has also been influenced by outsider artists like Martín Ramírez. Guston once told Lerner his work is different, how Lerner never has tried to fit into any kind of pigeonhole, or try to be part of something.
Lerner, also an assemblage artist, uses found objects and materials to create his homemade pieces. He collects a lot of vintage photos and postcards that he gets from flea markets and Pinterest. The magnitude of photos covering the walls of his home resembles a historical museum. He’s also fond of using vintage record albums (from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s) from Ebay. Lerner makes sure the covers are thick. He likes that they are colorful and bold. It is through the records that his paintings get splashes of color and textured to the fingertips. Another man’s trash is truly another man’s treasure for Lerner.
The materials he uses are a part of all aspects of his art. His art style calls back to his purely sculpture days. His asthma prevents him now from making sculptures like the biblical (Old Testament) sized totem sized ones such as “Melchizedek” and “Ezekiel’s Vision” near the entrance to his apartment. He can’t cut the wood anymore. Also the sculptures take up quite a bit of space. His pet cat, Shiva, likes to hang around them. Shiva has also made guest appearances in his art.
In his studio amongst his big tangible painting collages, there’s more of his sculptures, smaller ones dangling from the ceiling. They give off a Tim Burton-esque vibe. If Burton made a film about the deep sea, Lerner’s sculptures (deep sea diver, lobster, fishes) would be prime for the picking.
“I’m getting the best of both worlds. I’m able to do sculptural kinds of things. At the same time, I’m doing flat paintings. So I’m mixing it up,” said Lerner.
Lerner has transitioned his style into merging the two mediums of sculpting and painting to form the work he does now: these tangible 3D-like painting collages. But he still starts small on sketching paper or mini boards with compilations of inspired images before he ventures to the big canvas to craft the narrative first.
One of the biggest supporters of his art was his late wife of 35 years, Lorraine. She passed six months ago due to Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA).
Lorraine did not go to art school. Her mom was an artist but she went to a trade school for typesetting. Lerner smiled remembering how Lorraine would tell him when something was good, something he should keep working on, or something he should scrap. Her feedback was always welcomed.
Lerner has a painting depicting Lorraine’s struggle with the neurological disease. He calls the painting “Death to Spinocerebellar Ataxia” which is something he hopes happens to the disease.
He explained the painting to me through the patient’s page of Lorraine from Dr. Sheng-Han. The person in the artwork is Lorraine, and there’s a cowboy on a horse on her brain surrounded by a cacophony of imagery to reflect how hard it is to function with SCA. She is trying to play the accordion but it is difficult because of the disease she has. Lerner also included their cat Shiva as the brain with the words “Death to Spinocerebellar Ataxia.” Shiva is supposed to be protecting her brain.
“The story of Lorraine’s disease has 10 plagues, similar to the Exodus story in the Bible: 1) Loss of Eyesight, 2) Loss of Speech, 3) Loss of Swallowing, 4) Loss of Balance and Inability to Walk, 5) Loss of Family and Friends, 6) Loss of Having Children, 7) Loss of Continence, 8) Loss of Coordination, 9) Loss of Focus, and 10) Loss of Life,” said Lerner on the page.
Lorraine always told him he was a great artist and to continue to do his art which is what Lerner wants to do. He’s been doing art for a while. He taught on the side at University of Maryland, Florida State and taught all around New Jersey and New York as an adjunct professor. He also helped with the family business called Lerner’s Furs and sold fur coats (the family business was sold to someone else in 1998). Lastly, he got into investing in stocks, which he still does.
All in all, Lerner is just getting started at 69 and soon you can witness his fantastical world and previous work. So prepare yourself to come inside the world of Howard Lerner, you might come to appreciate the grotesque, a new type of mythology, or unheard parts of history.