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Jack Lewis interview: 'My whole life so far has been a painting in progress'

As a major Jack Lewis exhibition opens at Gallery Soho, the artist answers his critics.

- First time I saw your watercolours I thought to the Rorschach inkblot test, do you like to play with the ambiguity of perception in your paintings?

I like to leave the painting in question up to the viewer, to me there is no ambiguity because for me it’s a process so there is a start and a finish and I know how I got there but I guess in terms of that journey, there is definitely some ambiguity to the viewer…that’s why I don’t sell everything!

- Wich kind of work will be displayed at the Gallery Soho’s exhibition from 29th May?

I only found out that I had the space and the show about month ago so I have not had much time to prepare…it will be a mix of work from last year and some smaller more recent stuff that I have been creating on my mums kitchen table (since I left my own residence and studio in Manchester about the same time I found out about the show!)

- Which media are influencing your art? and in which way? 

I work in Film and TV so I would like my paintings to be influenced by my day job. Art = Life and all that! But for some reason it doesn’t seem to permeate into my work as much as I would like to…much of my work is American 50’s based so I guess much of the belief and the drive for my work comes from my father who died when I was 2 years old. He was American and he was born in California in 1943 so that explains a lot… much of it starts with a personal or a found photograph and then I take it from there. The collages start with a drawing of mine then an advert from a magazine and then I just play around and see what works…either the magazine comes first and then the drawing or the magazine and then the drawing!

- You got a particular idea of America in your mind that is not exactly the usual “American Dream”, where does it come from?

I think I just answered this in the last question but the American influence comes from my deceased father whom I never knew. It sounds very cliché and stereotypical but I don’t enforce that personal history on the viewer. I let them make up their own mind… there is usually an isolated figure in my paintings in search of something or some kind of meaning but doesn’t that relate to each and every one of us! Isn’t that the American Dream? The paintings usually incorporate a nomad or wandering traveller!

- As painter you have a great passion for the colours, tools that on your hands express energy and wrath against aspects of our society. In few words, what the colours mean for Jack Lewis?

I would like my paintings to be less colourful but I think that is something that comes with experience. I set out to experiment with colour, and with my energy, so that one day when I am old I know that I can simplify it, to know that if I use pink here, or blue there, it is the wrong choice, because I have done that before and it hasn’t worked. Painting, and true painting as a true artist is about experience, it is about making choices. When you are young you make the wrong choice, which teaches you when you are older to make the RIGHT choice. Again however we are talking about Art so it is subjective, but at least I gain inner peace knowing that for me, I have made the right decision.

I also think that it depends how much money you have at the time! If you have a lot, you can buy more colours, but if you don’t you are limited with the colours you have. Same with canvas…I dream of painting on Linen forever. I have only ever painted on linen once in my life and it was an awful painting…I have repainted it and it’s actually in the show…called ‘Captive’ (I think. for now).

- What inspires more your imagination?

I always think I have no imagination. Imagination is about freeing yourself and I think I’m too serious most of the time. It’s definitely something that gets better with age and confidence. There is about 2 seconds of imagination that finds itself emerging in my work after about 6 hours of working. I believe that reading is very good for your imagination but I’m not a good reader…I would like to be better but it always makes me tired….Having said that, I read my first proper book last week for the first time in 5 years… bad. I read art theory and art books but that’s not the same… BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS. I can’t stress enough. A few people have said that my work reminds them of a book or a narrative of some sort which is weird. As if I’m trying to tell a story. I have to admit I’m yet to find out what that story is but that’s what keeps me going…Apart from that I find a found/personal photograph and ‘I take a line for a walk.’ (Paul Klee)

- Do you like Francis Bacon? I can see some features in common with your painting...

Francis Bacon is the best painter to have lived in the last 150 years…I don’t think there is a painter out there today who does not acknowledge Bacon or live in his shadow. He was Gay, repressed, an alcoholic, an atheist, and all in 1950’s/60’s London in a post-war period, which was a dark place to live. He was an amazing painter, but his exceptional circumstances made him even stronger and speak to a wider audience…now. Not then. That is very important. Any great originator breaks convention and is not recognised to their full at first. He became successful, but in his later years in life. There Is just so much inner torment in his work which I believe we can all relate to.

My favourite painter is Peter Doig, who’s favourite painter is Edward Munch, so se if you can see the influences. Marlene Dumas Is also an exceptional painter. And Gerhard Richter. (and Hockney, but he’s british!) Richter is I think the most technically diverse and accomplished but maybe lacks a little emotion...He is German.

- I love you collage, will you show them the at the exhibition? wich is for you the potential of the collage?

Thanks….Yes I would like to show some of the collages at the show…I never have displayed any to the public as haven’t really had the confidence until now…. Unlike painting that is a laborious process made over a certain period of time, collage for me allows me to create meaning quickly between images and objects…It’s a good way to generate ideas, which can then be developed into a painting in future or if the collage is good enough it can hold its own weight within a show.

- From some pictures that I saw i can guess you got a strong relation with your studio, “your corner”, do you want to spend some words?

Yes I think the studio is an important thing to have and a place to be…. I think its important that the studio is dislocated from ones house, to give the sense that one has to go to work… some days you have good painting days, and some days, not so good, but even if one isn’t painting, I think it is important to spend as much time in the studio as possible so that it becomes your second home!! Or better your first! It should be the place I spend most of my time, so that you get used to being in there. As an artist who I admire once said, ‘its not always necessary to be painting, sometimes its just as beneficial to spend hours looking.’ (at what you’ve painted or made)

I heard Karen Brady, a very famous business woman recently say on TV, ‘It is only work if there is something you would rather be doing.’ I think about this a lot in my studio. I want to associate my studio with working, so in theory, it means that most of the time I would rather be anywhere BUT my studio. However luckily this is not the case. Only sometimes. My old studio had no windows and was a rather lonely place to be…im now painting in my mums garden shed with lots of windows, and have produced a lot more and better work so maybe windows are the secret of my success!? Who knows….

- What is for you the sense of a “painting in progress” ?

For me my whole life so far has been a painting in progress…It sounds romantic but even though I move from painting to painting, and to the viewer there are finished products, for me there is no dividing line between the different paintings as one work flows into another, whether it’s the subject matter being pursued or whether it’s the similar colour palette at work. I want to move forward with my work, so the rest of my life I hope to be a ‘painting in progress’. As soon as you sit down and say ‘im happy with that’ or ‘that is the best I have ever done, I can’t do better’, that is it. Your finished. I like to believe that no artist would ever sit down and utter those words. The work never stops progressing.

- What is the “Indian Ink”?

Indian ink is just a type of ink I use….it’s your common standard type of black ink you can buy in art stores…my favourite type of ink is actually Dr.Martins concentrated watercolours…. When mixed with water the black seems to divide up into a more colourful spectrum…you get hints of blue here, purple there, sometimes orange. And the ink bottles comes with pipettes so you can really control what the ink does. (along with my brushes!)

- How your art studies influenced your works?

I think being an artist is a way of thinking and you cant really teach that. Being a painter is a little bit of this but also more to do I feel with experience. You cant teach painting. You can only DO painting, see what happens, and try and try again. Art studies are beneficial in learning about art history, but I also feel that knowing too much art history can trap a painter or an artist as they feel they cant ‘do this’, or ‘try that’ for fear of it being too similar to another artists work. It is better to know nothing because then you have no fears. It is better to never know too much or too never care too much otherwise you become clogged down by thinking, not doing.

- Everyone Thinks Their Monkey is Cute, why do you think your one is the cutest?

Im not trying to say that my work is the cutest…the title worked for me in a humorous way, as if to take the mickey out of people who truly do believe that their ‘monkey’ is the ‘cutest’ (or work is the best!) Whatever I think about my work, someone else will beg to differ, because art is subjective….If we both had monkeys you might think mine was ugly even if I thought it was cute and vice versa…you cant objectify yourself from your own situation if its your own, or something you have created yourself… my monkey is young, but there are artists out there who are great and have the cutest monkeys (in my eyes), I just hope that with good training, discipline and age my monkey will one day be as cute as theirs. But again that is only my own perception. I think I’m starting to sound crazy now with all this monkey talk!

I liked the use of monkey as an animal. There is something of the ‘jester’ and the ‘fool’ involved. I also liked the use of ‘Cute’ instead of say ‘beautiful’. Beauty is universal, but there extends something deeper with this idea of cute. As if to view the monkey as a whole entity, including its personality, instead of just what you see at face value.

The title came from something I saw on the internet…A guy who builds websites for a hospital was saying that every department at the hospital thought that what they had to offer was important, and deserved a space on his website…his phrase to describe this was that ‘Everyone Thinks Their Monkey is Cute’


Jack Lewis runs from 29 April - 6 May at Gallery Soho

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