by David M. Roth
Some of the richest, most effusive abstract painting I’ve seen in recent memory comes from the New Jersey-based artist Peter Wayne Lewis. A Jamaican-American who emigrated to Sacramento in 1962 and then moved to New York after earning an MA degree in art at San Jose State, Lewis, until recently, led a peripatetic existence rivaling that of a diplomat conducting shuttle diplomacy. For many years, he divided his time between a home in South Orange, N.J., a job in Boston teaching painting at the Massachusetts College of Art, and a studio in Beijing, which he’ll soon close because of that country’s darkening political climate.
His own “climate,” to borrow Henry Miller’s self-description, remains “bright and sunny.” Evidence rests with his current show at b. sakata garo. It consists of 11 vertical scroll paintings, seven medium-sized canvases and four smaller paintings on panel, all made between 2010-2012 — the years Lewis’ work last appeared in these parts. The canvases, culled from the artist’s 15-part Buddha Plays Monk series, rank among the artist’s best. In these, watery stains reminiscent of sumi ink drawing and calligraphy form loose scaffolds onto which Lewis lays thick paint dabs that read as seed pods (or flowers) and sweeping bodily gestures that end in wrist flicks to form breathtaking arabesques. Never mind that Lewis eschews representation; the overall impression is of volcanic ejaculations and aquatic plants tossed to-and-fro in the tide. Suite in Grey #36, a painting done in rust orange and banana yellow, pushes these associations even further. It put me in mind of the hothouse scene in Angels and Insects, the 1995 film based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia (1992), in which the main characters, played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Mark Rylance, fall vertiginously in love against a backdrop of resplendent foliage and swarming butterflies.
Such vitality stems from Lewis’ hard-won virtuosity as much as it does from his method of making paintings in a single take, a first-thought, best-thought approach influenced in part by his father, a jazz musician, and by close associations with a wide circle of New York-area artists — visual, literary and musical. Thus, Buddha Plays Monk is more than just a clever bit of wordplay; his coupling of the “high priest of Bebop” with a religious icon in the series title makes perfect sense. Both were shamans (of a sort), and both habitually gave cryptic directives to their respective acolytes. John Coltrane, for example, likened his first encounter with Thelonious Monk to “stepping into an elevator shaft,” owing to the gulf between the pianist’s seemingly simple compositions and the complex harmonies and treacherous rhythms he employed to bring them to fruition.
Lewis’ works exhibit a similar simplicity in that they rely on a recursive library of psychomotor impulses surrounded by a lot of white space, a visual equivalent of the wide-open “spaces” and fractured rhythms that gave Monk’s music its distinct flavor. The difference is this: where Monk afforded listeners few opportunities to decode his methods, Lewis exposes the foundational structure of his oeuvre in vertical scroll paintings executed on rice paper mounted on patterned linen. Minus the detailed brushwork that lends focus to the otherwise amorphous forms populating the canvases, the scrolls are defined primarily by wavy calligraphic lines and stains reminiscent of those seen in de Kooning’s late works. Contrary to what you might think, Lewis never studied calligraphy. This, Lewis told me, puzzled Chinese friends who saw a link between his visual language and theirs but remained flummoxed as to the source — a phenomenon he compared to the confusion sown when the Chinese artist Xu Bing used English letters to form square Chinese characters. Like Xu’s installation, Living Word (2021-22), Lewis’ Beijing Booster series works best when seen en masse, as a collective whole. Spread across the longest of the gallery’s brick-and-mortal walls, the scrolls turn the space, a converted 19th-century firehouse, into something akin to a shrine.
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Peter Wayne Lewis: “Kingston to Sacramento: a Painter’s Journey” @ b. sakata garo through October 28, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.