Drawing can save your life
Richard Lewer’s art makes us laugh even as we recognise the painful moments of weakness and failure he’s looking at. Lisa Slade reports.
For at least 15 years New Zealand artist Richard Lewer has used text in his work. Handwriting, as though scrawled by a not-so-talented teenager, announces a litany of laconic revelations. Robert MacPherson meets Colin McCahon in these text paintings and his most recent series make pithy, metaphysical and even banal proclamations like “Redheads feel pain so much more”, “Tax time again”, “I really hate Perth” and “It’s true, drawing saved me”. While these latest text paintings are made in pencil and acrylic paint on sandpaper, the now Melbourne-based artist’s unorthodox surfaces have included pegboard, foam sponge, laminate, concrete and billiard table baize. In 2008 Lewer made a series of pegboard confessions where he admitted, among other things, that it had been 11 years since his last confession – revealing something distinctly post-Catholic about himself.
Richard Lewer’s laconic wit springs peculiarly from the Antipodes, and as such, has found appreciative audiences in both
New Zealand and Australia. Lewer was born in Hamilton in 1970, and has lived on both sides of the Tasman – in Auckland, Melbourne and Fremantle. He exhibits regularly in both countries and his work is held in private and public collections, including Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Waikato Museum, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, and the National Gallery of Victoria.
Combined with an inventive approach to materials, Lewer’s lively sense of humour positions his practice within an Anzac lineage where ingenuity and drollery reside in equal measure. Just as Lewer’s humour can be described as laconic, so too can his way of working – his paint application is as deft and concise as his message. Furthermore, a fascination for tales of hardship, endurance and heroic tragedy connects Lewer, metaphorically at least, with the Anzacs. As he proclaims, “I have an unhealthy interest in human suffering”. War has also featured as a subject in his work. After winning the 2015 Albany Art Prize, Lewer participated in a one-month residency in the West Australian town of Albany from where more than 40,000 Australian and New Zealand service men and women (Anzacs) departed 100 years ago for World War I. Many of them never returned. This coastline was the last antipodean landscape seen by the Anzacs before heading to war and Lewer’s residency led him to mine the town for memories – for mud and blood and tears.
In Albany, Lewer’s subjective and selective ethnography, whereby he collected oral histories and trawled local clubs and the local historical society, was distilled into a diary entry made on sandpaper. From sandpaper to steel for the final paintings shown in Sydney in mid 2016, the choice of such rough and rugged materials allegorises not only the difficulties, but also the strength of those who faced war. The predominantly monochrome paintings with their viscous oil paint evoke at once the sepia tones of old gelatin photographs and the mud of the trenches. In War Widows from 2016, a bride takes the arm of her groom in greens. Standing within a gloomy, war torn landscape, their bodies are transparent and their faces incomplete – their spectral presence suggests the ubiquity of this tragedy and the ongoing haunting of war and loss.
Lewer’s experience in Albany coincided with the invitation to make work for Sappers & Shrapnel, an Anzac Centenary Arts and Culture Fund project at the Art Gallery of South Australia inspired by trench art, the little known art form involving the crafting of objects from the detritus of war. A visit to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra during the research stages of the trench art project ignited an interest in dioramas (among other things) and led to collaboration with model maker and Army Reserve Tony O’Connor. As curator Leigh Robb describes in her essay “Richard Lewer: Small Acts”, for the publication accompanying Sappers & Shrapnel: “Whether by design or happenstance, at the time Richard Lewer was engrossed in making these bodies of work, he was also digging a wet trench in his backyard. Acknowledging the vastly different conditions, and without the impending threat of death, he recognises an untold story of re-enactment, one that underpins both Lewer’s dioramas and paintings. The dark grittiness of soil and dirt seems to have penetrated the texture and palette of his paintings, and is literally evoked in the dioramas.”
One of the resulting dioramas, The Angel of Mons, captures the well-known legend of the appearance of an angel in the sky who safeguarded the retreat of the British from Mons in Belgium, on the Western Front, in August 1914. Such a tale echoes the apotropaic powers of trench art – just as the Angel of Mons protected the soldiers, so too did the trench art trinkets crafted from purloined and repurposed weaponry.
Arguably, 2016 has been Lewer’s busiest year. Following on from the Albany residency he was selected for the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial and in July was awarded the 2016 Basil Sellers Art Prize for The Theatre of Sports. Painted in a high key palette to underscore how extensively our sporting heroes are consigned to the spotlight, The Theatre of Sports was ignited by Lewer’s interest in Olympic swimmer, Ian Thorpe, and his struggle with depression. Thorpe is the subject of one of the 12 paintings in which Lewer transfers a mass-mediated moment of failure, broadcast endlessly on screens and published in print, onto canvas. In the artist’s statement for this work, Lewer expressed that “it is, perhaps, not through the triumphs but through the tough moments that we truly find resilience and a deeper understanding of ourselves”. While Lewer is referring explicitly to the moments of sporting failure depicted in his anthology of 12 paintings, the statement is also undoubtedly an assertion based on his own experience. Lewer had been a finalist in the Basil Sellers Art Prize on three previous occasions and was awarded winner in the final year of the prize.
Not content with being a spectator or bystander, Lewer is complicit in the drama and the difficulty that unfolds in his work – he always includes himself in its attendant narratives. Herein lies one key reason for Lewer’s success – he’s always part of the conversation, never merely didactic and never dull. It is in the body of work made for the 2016 Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial at the Art Gallery of New South Wales that Lewer most explicitly exorcises his own demons by placing himself as subject among a series of portraits of eight of his friends and acquaintances, all of whom suffer from mental illness. Lewer encouraged his subjects to speak about their experiences as he drew them. In an email correspondence with Anne Ryan, Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, he wrote, “Because it was so personal, I had to find a sort of balance in order to get people to get comfortable to open up and tell you about … some of their worst experiences. I’m very humbled and privileged to have the trust of a number of people who live with depression and who, in most cases, are letting me into a very personal and deeply private aspect of their life to draw their portrait and discuss what depression is to them”.
As they sat for him, and with each drawing requiring about ten days to complete, each sitter’s circumstance altered his own and he invariably altered theirs. Sitter and subject remade each other, an act of exchange that the art of portraiture has enacted since its origin in antiquity.
While Lewer works with any material and any medium that comes his way, it’s the medium of drawing that is reserved for his most intimate subjects and his most cathartic experiences. Whether exhibited as straightforward drawings, or animated as narrated moving images (as in the case of the 2014 Blake Prize winning work Worse luck… I am still here, made initially for the 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Dark Heart) drawing is direct and democratising for Lewer. Just like his text paintings with their vernacular charm, Lewer’s drawings smack of a high-school aesthetic, an awkward realism full of heartache, and a compelling insecurity that never fails to lure us.
Drawing, after all, saved his life, and it could well change ours.