Galleries John Lees: Wisps At: Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St., through March 22. 617-266-4835; www.nielsengallery.com. Mark Robbins: Households: The Way We Live Now Baker Gallery, Agassiz House, Radcliffe Yard, 10 Garden St., Cambridge, through March 21. 617-495-8212; www.radcliffe.edu. Ensembles: Assemblages and Collages At: Pepper Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through March 29. 617-236-4497; www.peppergalleryboston.com.
John Lees has paintings of his wife, Ruth, that he has been working on since the '70s. Over 30 years, exploring the image of his wife with a paintbrush and a palette knife, Lees delves deeper and deeper into their relationship. These are not simply portraits - indeed, they are as much about Lees's relationship with paint as they are about his marriage.
Lees lives with his paintings. He builds them up, adds on to their borders, sands them down, then builds some more. "Courtyard" started as a fairly small panel, then doubled in size, then grew outward as Lees tacked more wood onto the edges. It's a stirring mix of his trademark atmospheric use of paint balanced by a precise architectural space drawn onto the surface: tile floors, the sense of buildings in the background. A tree effervesces with green leaves, and, to the right, Lees has sanded down the layers of paint to a smooth blue glow, where a ghostly figure lurks. Warmth vies with mystery, solidity vies with peril, adding up to a tense, rich concoction.