Mark Lewis’s paintings and drawings develop frequently (but not exclusively) out of direct observation of his surroundings. His collaged paintings and drawings, which together comprise a significant and long-running aspect of his studio activities, are simultaneously bold in their composition and intricate in their execution. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Kansas City Art Institute in 1982, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1984. Also he attended the Yale-Norfolk summer program in 1981. He has served as Applied Associate Professor of Art at the University of Tulsa since 1998, and his exhibition record is too long to list here (but easily viewed on his own site: http://www.marklewispaintingstudio.com/about).
Robert Hughes once wrote “drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies—the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about—is apparently immortal.” This reminds me of something you said about painting, more than a decade ago: that it satisfies “visual hunger.” In your own painting, has that hunger evolved? If so, how? If not, would you care to comment on its consistency?
The hunger or desire hasn’t changed—it’s still there but possibly my visual appetite or my visual cravings have changed a bit. Using the words “visual hunger” is my way of being sort of vaguely specific—trying to be particular about my needs for the work, and also satisfying the visual necessity in the work, without illustrating a presumed or measured outcome. I’m not as eloquent as Hughes, but I can tell you I love Ruth Miller’s drawings.
Strictly speaking, it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual/tactile. Also: people say observing a process will change it. Perhaps there’s a danger in getting too analytical with some things. I think this was part of why I was so surprised and, ultimately, satisfied by your Street Fiction paintings. They use words paradoxically, to point out how useless words can sometimes be. Can you talk about where those paintings came from?
I’m glad that you say it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual, the tactile. I’ve always felt that way but at times it seems the general art world (whatever that means) seems to be dominated by the literary—conceptual illustration—rather than the visual. At this point in my life, having established a personal studio history, I’m as not personally overly analytical as I was, say, 20 years ago. That could be good or bad.
It seems like I regularly have a studio crisis of some sort or another every few years. At one point I was wondering if it was time to work less directly from observation. But to go back further: every 3 or 4 years I’ve always had a body of work developing in the studio that wasn’t based solely on perception. They were paintings of street scenes and paintings of male and female figures in interiors. I didn’t always exhibit those paintings but now I do—or I have recently, anyway. Working perceptually and from a blank canvas seem to be complimentary studio practices—a nice way to feed the work or stir up the work.
Ten years ago I thought of this body of work as “studio signs.” Riffing on the man-made object found in nature. Lately, I’ve been titling them or thinking of them as “street fiction” paintings: a real-false place that might reveal something truthful.
I’ve enjoyed reading plays lately too. A theatre class on campus invited me to read a play by a visiting playwright, to think about the artists that I’m interested in that relate to the play, and to share those artists’ work with the group in order to create a conversation with the work for the class and the playwright. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity. If you remember my early work, you know that I was a still life painter. I’ve always thought of the tabletops as stage sets (but not in an obvious way) and now I think of the streets as stage sets too—a place where I enjoy observing daily life. I enjoy thinking of plays as fictional truths—not a big stretch, of course, but I like the opportunity they provide. The street fiction paintings provide an opportunity to explore in a different way.
Any occurrence in observation can be used in my studio paintings or street fiction paintings, like words observed in the street scenes that I draw and paint. The story line of the words doesn’t add up in my field of vision either. This realization gave me the freedom to employ words in a different way, possibly in a more abstract or poetic way. When I listen to music—whether it’s Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” or the Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine”—I like the presence of the sound of words, the human voice. I don’t listen necessary to the story narrative, but I like their presence and recognition. In the Beatles tune I mentioned above, it’s the rhythmic beat of the words. In the Gorecki composition, I don’t understand the language, but I still understand. I think all paintings should have a face—not a picture of a face, but recognition found in paint from a hand. Philip Guston’s early abstractions, like Dial, and late paintings come to mind.
I feel nostalgia sometimes when I think about my time spent at University of Tulsa. It was before the Internet had ascended so fully as the go-to format for image sharing. I shot real slides of my work, wandered up and down the stacks of McFarlin Library looking at art monographs, and in the painting studio, you shared exhibition catalogs with us. Seeing and handling the catalogs felt special, rare, and also very matter-of-fact: they were objects, and there were only so many of them made. That kind of moment, that feeling, is something I hope to create for my own students, even if the tools have changed. What do you think about the shift in the material culture of being a painter? Maybe not just catalogs—paint, supports, online shopping vs. brick and mortar storefronts…
They are both relevant. I just hope we don’t throw out all of the old, sensory objects and try to replace them with only new opportunities via the internet and assume that is all that has to be done. The library is still best in most situations. I still follow the same practice in the classroom/studio, showing books and catalogues. I buy books for my library and for the university library. I do share a list of blog sites with my students and a list of reviewers or writers that I like to follow too. The tactile is important. I want to share this by saying something to you, by placing a book in your hand.
Most of your painting develops from direct observation of your surroundings. How has living and working in Tulsa affected your work?
I remember when I first moved to Tulsa—back to Oklahoma—I thought I would start by working in the landscape. I had been working with the landscape on the east coast. I grew up in McAlester, which is located in southeast Oklahoma. It is known for the state prison and was a former coal mining community. But even though I grew up in Oklahoma, my way of seeing had evolved. So the landscape seemed very foreign to me when I first returned. Within a couple of years I started to make new discoveries in the Tulsa landscape, not relying on the type of choices that I was making when I was painting in DC or Charlottesville, for example. There I was working with landscape more as interior space. In Tulsa, I became attracted to open and public spaces.
Does “landscape as interior space” mean unpeopled space, an effect of architectural surroundings, or something else?
Unpeopled and architectural surroundings both, but mainly as private space or a room, like space in the landscape; also, like a studio space claimed in the landscape with a particular view to work with.
Do you think place changes the work in other ways? I’m thinking of practical issues, like scale and cost of rent; also, of artists per capita in a city like Tulsa vs. New York or Los Angeles.
I moved back to Oklahoma after a one-year sabbatical replacement position at the University of Virginia. I had been living in the DC area and had lived on the east coast for approximately 9 years. I would like to think that there would not be that much difference in choice other than the different opportunities that the landscape might provide. Moving to Tulsa was a practical choice, initially. I thought it would provide a greater opportunity to spend time in the studio (lower cost of living, etc.) which I think has been true.
I like to discover places to paint. I like to be stimulated by something that I have seen as a starting point for a work. It’s not practical to make the large graphite drawings/collages outdoors but I prefer the experience of being on site and I suppose I would find a way to continue this practice if I were located in NY or in LA.
I’m usually working on site or starting a painting with a blank canvas in the studio. I’ve worked large in small studios and worked on a smaller scale in bigger studios. I simply try to find a way to support the work when necessary.
I’m not sure how my work would be different if I had moved to a larger or coastal city. I’m sure there would be some external influences but I’m generally a very private person and the studio dialogue is more internal for me. I’ve found that I don’t need the energy of an art scene or a current trend to respond to—to work—I just need more time in the studio. New ideas come from working, and there is never enough time to explore those ideas.
Thank you Mark!
From top: An untitled graphite and paper collage from 2016; detail of same collage; Why?, oil on canvas 2011-12, 91 x 66″; Boston Avenue Looking South, graphite and paper collage, 2014, 75 x 50″; Studio, 2007, oil on linen, 72 x 64″‘ video tour of ML’s 2012 exhibition at Bowery Gallery, New York. All images courtesy of the artist; video courtesy of Ty Smith.