Tony Lewis’ monumental canvases typically consider the relationship between semiotics and language, using words lifted from personal or political writings. However, this latest exhibition at Massimo De Carlo, When I Felt Like I Could Sing That, Then I Felt Like I Was In eschews of words and strict geometry characteristic of Lewis’ previous work, in favor of biomorphic forms created from bold patches of colour. It’s colour that does the talking here, with bright and beautiful drawings offering an escape from the bleak winter outside the exhibition walls. On a stint in London, Chicago-native Lewis chats to Schön! about his latest artistic venture, and the influences which govern his practice.
“Up until this point, my works have been very linguistic and conceptual, with strong academic overtones”, Lewis explains. These new works don’t exactly mark a departure, rather, they signify “the next stage of a conversation. I do feel that colour is more accessible than archaic forms of language – it’s far easier to have a conversation about red or blue,” he says. In this exhibition, the emphasis shifts toward pure feeling, encouraging viewers to “mediate on colour and shapes in a more colloquial way.”
Lewis is deeply knowledgble of the pioneers of the conceptual practices underpinning his craft, and he wears these influences proudly on his sleeve. “I’ll gladly sit on the shoulder of someone like Stuart Davis, Eva Hesse or Mark Rothko,” he explains. Eva Hesse’s biomorphic drawings of the 1960s are of particular relevance. The works in this series often appear as though bulbolus reclinging figures, akin to Hesse’s “gross, natural forms”.
This preoccupation with the body extends to the materials used in the richly textured canvases. Lewis applies powder graphite in both solid patches (requiring “lots of elbow grease and work”) and as a shimmery overlay in an attempt to imbue his canvases with a sculptural quality.
“For these drawings what came to mind initially was Stuart Davis. If I want to start explaining my relationship to colour planes, Davis is a good place to start”. The connection between Davis – an American Modernist painter – and Lewis lies in their shared fixation with Jazz music. Davis’ paintings are often perceieved as visual manifestation of Jazz, with the expressive use of line, colour and repeated shapes mimicking the syncopation and improvisation of the genre. Lewis’ drawings achieve a similar effect, with interlocking shapes and juxtapositions of colour infusing his works with a visual rhythm.
“I’ve listened to scat music for a while”, Lewis says. “One of the best scat artists in history was Ella Fitzgerald. The same kind of emotion embedded in her voice is the emotion I’m trying to achieve with these works”. Reconciling these various sources of inspiration is Lewis’ fundamental aim. “Understanding the relationship between music, improvisation, sound, rhythm, and then Stuart David, and then Eva Hesse, and then linguistics, is the problem I’m trying to make sense of through my drawings”.
It may, therefore, come as a surprise to hear that Lewis will opt to listen to Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper whilst creating his works in the studio. Does their influence permeate his work? “I sure hope so,” he exclaims. When he arrives home from the studio, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Ella Fitzgerald are the artists Lewis is listening to: “I have a different relationship to it [Jazz]… you can’t put language to it.”
Previous works by Lewis have been far more somber in content, purveying politically charged messages in response to incidences of police brutality against people of colour. Yet these new works are ebullient, and reflective of an introspective journey. Lewis comments that they were made during the latter half of 2016 – “a terrible, weird period in Chicago, but a wonderful time in the studio” (perhaps a reference to the tumultuous events surrounding the US election). Are the works, therefore, a form of escapism? “On some level, I think that art is responsible for everything. I think it should be a place where protest happens. But that’s a moral decision for every artist,” Lewis responds. “Perhaps coming into the studio is therapy”.
For an artist so in tuned with the world around him, one can only assume that future works will continue to respond to the political climate. Yet When I Felt Like I Could Sing That, Then I Felt Like I Was In offers a temporary moment of transcendence, whilst also reminding its audience of the shared sensory delights of music and colour that bind people together.
When I Felt Like I Could Sing That, Then I Felt Like I Was In is on show at Massimo De Carlo, London Until April 8th.
Words / Daisy Schofield
Photography / Todd-White Art Photography, Courtesy Massimo De Carlo Milan/London/Hong Kong