Dale Lewis – Fat, Sugar, Salt – Edel Assanti Gallery until March 10th 2018
(In conversation with Sacha Craddock Jan 31st 2018)
“Over emphasis of the visual sense created a kind of human identity of the self requiring persistent violence, both to one’s self and to others…” Marshall McLuhan
At the opening of Dale Lewis’ Fat Sugar Salt at the Edel Assanti Gallery I was not altogether clear whether I liked the paintings. Liking things is a popular contemporary past time and perhaps not altogether essential for a pleasurable engagement with Art. I returned for his discussion with Sacha Craddock to try to unravel some of the questions I had. As well as the scale and impasto portions of paint I was struck by the violence in the images. It wasn’t cartoon violence nor was it a shockingly disturbing kind that pulls you up short. The other thing you notice is the frieze-like proportions, which somehow bypass the compositional pitfalls and narrative constraints of a more balanced canvas shape. It does of course call to mind the vast metaphysical landscapes of the abstract expressionist school, namely Jackson Pollock inhabited by the thrashing figures of De Kooning. During the discussion with Sacha Cradock, Lewis, deliberately of otherwise, hinted at an affinity to this heroic indecipherability with reference to his own substance intake as part of the painting process. But I was beginning to think that this need to place something within a canon or lineage is part of what Lewis’s paintings transcend. After-all transcendence is the aim of art? And so we travel along through the show guided by the canvas crossbars of unfurling urban panoramas redolent of the truncated space of Sega street-fighter games.
‘Family Fortunes’, 2017, oil, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 200 x 400 cm.
The vast frieze format also evokes the epic dramas of the Renaissance. This is the platform from which De Kooning delivered his lecture The Renaissance and Order in which he talked about a “train track in the history of art that goes back to Mesopotamia.” Lewis’ extended proportions sit us down in the carriage. - Look there is Uccello’s Rout of san Romano and there’s Tintoretto’s Christ washing the feet of his Disciple’s (by coincidence almost exactly the same size as Lewis’ consistent canvas size of choice). Lewis has not analysed these paintings and describes his experience of them as having glimpsed them from the corner of his eye. The sense of domestic allegory is in the work and instead of Christ the artist himself is scapegoated in Family Fortunes – a title that neatly mixes the abject with the aspirational. Tintoretto’s later version of the above takes place in a kitchen and there is also the same sense of shallow space found in Lewis’ work. It’s as if the paintings inhabit a perspectival realm but this is interrupted. It’s not the infinite cinematic scope of Uccello but something more akin to a tapestry. A more pre-renaissance idea of life as a cosmic patina unfolding in the now. Much recent art has made use of violence and transgression to award itself the kudos of otherness but this was not the feeling I got from theses paintings. I felt it was part of a struggle to reconnect with the body as part of an experiential existence.
When paintings are exhibited the idea of image is never far from the surface and Craddock was quick to introduce this snarling concept to the visiting public. After seeing the Rose Wylie and Wade Guyton at the Serpentine recently I felt both artists were making their generations response to our new found position adrift in a sea of images constantly overlapping and shifting to reveal more hollow icons. But with Lewis something else is happening. These are not images they are paintings with an overtly visceral quality. They are full of bodily matter and function. The shows title, fat sugar salt implies the cognitive dissonance of fast foods guilty pleasures interrupted by the need to schematise their bodily effects. Likewise, the need to place the work within a canon is part of the mind body split that has forced us into the realm of images policed by contructed perspectival space. One of the questions from the floor concerned the use of figures, “why are you using figures if you don’t want them to be seen as narrative?”
The answer is perhaps simply that the paintings are not agencies of encoded signifiers, they are transmogrified lived experience. An expression of themselves.
Rationality (the same demon that led to WWII and stoked the fires under the Abstract Expressionists) and the resultant need for a subject object split have seen to it that we live in the age of image as equivalence (head on a coin). At a recent lecture Grayson Perry half jokingly discussed how his gallery had instructed him that the work needed to work as a jpeg now. Lewis’ paintings have been compared to Perry’s witty tapestries of English society. Perry, however, constructs his work to be read. Lewis’ are much more awkwardly dyslexic and don’t work within the screen format, requiring therefore that we actually have occasion to stand in front of them. They are not there to be read they are an invitation to experience life on a level of pre-intellectual awareness. In a smart world proud of its intelligence this is a problematic concept, which cannot be fully understood only really experienced. Lewis’ paintings embody the struggle that the cognitive brain has in relinquishing its hold over our sense of identity. The violence of the image and its razor blade in the eye of all who consume is resisted by the cut and thrust of bodies lashed together on a new raft of the Medusa.
In conclusion yes there are points in these works where one can make connections to the order of history (His story) and enter into the game of untangling the process, which the use of masking tape and pencil invites but these paintings are something different. They are not about other – they are other. So as I sat there during the gallery discussion searching for the images on the tip of my wounded eye-tongue I realised I needed to let go and allow the work to function as Art. The violence is not a reflection of society and the narrative is not a Beryl Cooke-like staging of our foolish urbo-pastoral foibles, rather these are paintings entangling with our struggle to find a way through the thicket of images into a clearing of authenticity in actual lived events. Painting with its visceral immediacy and ability to push our noses into the image, has returned to remind us of our ability to feel and engage with the yearning of sentient machines possessed by a feeling that they might have a soul.
"Art's expression is the anti-thesis of expressing something," for Adorno, implies that it remains non-identical to a tendency that is related to the exigency of commodity exchange.” A Sinha
Text by Mikey Georgeson 2018
Photo of audience by Jackie Clark
Photo of audience by Jackie Clark