Abstract Critical

Stephen Lewis: Muddler – Sculptures and Drawings

Written by Emyr Williams


The Mimic, painted steel, 2006

Stephen Lewis is showing work from approximately ten years at The Cut Gallery, Halesworth, Suffolk. It affords the viewer a chance to catch up with the works of this first rate sculptor in an “overview” exhibition. It is surprising that this is his first one person show since 2006 and as such is significant. We have had several tasters in various group shows of his practice and concerns, but not lately seen the relationships between works that is so important in an advanced artist’s work. There are some 15 sculptures and 22 drawings on show. The sculptures are predominately in steel, though there are cast plaster pieces that explore form and texture through an oblique figuration. Colour weaves its way throughout the show in subtle ways: in the raw materials and painted or glazed surfaces.

Due to the space of this gallery the works are modestly human-sized or smaller. I’ve often felt that his talents really flourish when he handles large scale works. A recent commissioned sculpture Rare Earth for a school in Rayleigh was particularly memorable and very successful as a project. A number of his looping, transparent billowing ones would have related more closely to the drawings on show as they share qualities of linearity. I feel this would have given a more comprehensive
picture, especially to a visitor not familiar with his work.

Rare Earth, painted steel, 2010

Some of the works have illusions of and allusions to a landscape in its widest possible definition (perhaps urban, perhaps not); yet none of these should be seen as specific references, more as observed forms that draw us in and invite further enquiry.

These recognizable extras add rather than detract from the whole though. In the work of a lesser artist these kinds of devices would almost certainly appear bogus. Lewis has a facility of touch and handling that enables him to also integrate ‘given’ forms and to use them to play off improvised sections, animating the works even further. You notice the known forms also but never dwell on them. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Demons Promenade, painted steel, 2005

There are several works that employ a cross-slotted pair of straight-sided, round cornered rectangles – precise, laser cut structures either skinny or squat – a brass one was shown in the RA Summer Exhibition this year. To my eye these works end up a little more forced in their elegance. Does considered placement give as much back visually as discovered forming? – only time will tell if they are as successful as the more irregularly shaped works. I am reserving judgement as I feel that they are part of the evolution of planar forces in Lewis’s expansive vocabulary and as such have not yet found their fullest role; they are protean at the very least. I hope to see more linear / planar works as this is a territory he is fast making his own – particularly when he uses the ‘silhouette’ styled improvised contours I alluded to earlier. These elements introduce an exciting kind of probing drawing that is present in other works in more volumetric ways but similar in spirit and equally satisfying. The more “found” works feel bigger in impact and claim a greater intimacy because of their hand wrought-ness.

Utopian Incline, painted steel, 2006

Line is coolly controlled here and often appears as a straight element or part of an open structure – a windmill like front to the slotted forms for example, and I wondered how much more could be done with linear elements in relation to the contoured planes or volumes; space could really be opened up in more unforeseen ways.

Attracter, 2003, 68 x 62 x 70 cm, painted steel, 2003

A Lewis sculpture has a very specific and individual sense of gravity. Steel is often made pliable, soft and bendy, yet maintains its rigidity and its tensile strength. Expression is arrived at through the way the material is used. There is often a pervasive “pear shaped” weighting that is almost leviathan-like in its sense of scale. There are several of these works in this show, but Lewis is one of the most eclectic sculptors working today and cannot be pinned down to any one approach – he is equally adept at dealing with mass, line, plane and perhaps most tellingly (and understatedly) colour. Lewis is skilled in using colour as an integral rather than a decorative element. In his more recent steel works he prefers to spray or hand paint with a range of matte greyed colour, but when it is chromatically high key he achieves one of the most successful works in the show Attractor – with its pod organic growths thrusting up and turning periscope-like – all garish and scrubby orange – the form of it made in curved pieces which have a patchwork togetherness. This work feels grown rather than made – it looks as if it would be most at home outdoors where it could jostle and poke fun at the comparatively shy-looking plants of our temperate climate.

The ink and charcoal drawings and a handful of prints on show here are unashamedly figurative and play an almost sneaky “partner in crime” role. At first glance they are Thurberesque with a casual insouciance but this is not the state of affairs at all when you really look at them and consider them against the sculptures they encircle.

Sand-Dragons, conte crayon, 2002

The line in several works is definite and strident, their wittiness is often abrasive and even slightly chilling. There is a large unsettling drawing of a “character” in close up where each feature element is a clean formal statement. I reflected here about sideways glances to the Japanese “ōkao-e” large face prints – a subtle link perhaps to the deftness that is prevalent in some of the most recent sculptures.

14 March 2004

These drawings position themselves as works of fact and caper independently alongside the sculptures rather than pandering to them as supporting studies often do. They raise a telling and intriguing question about the purpose and function of drawing for a sculptor. Look at a Moore drawing for example with its ‘obvious’ description of forms, stone-like in their three-dimensional illusion – suggesting sculptures yet to be made. Lewis employs an antithetical, sophisticated yet almost bloody-minded approach by comparison, similar in characteristic to some of the qualities he has as a sculptor: direct, subversive and with a lightness of touch. His drawings go off on their own merry tangents with a purposeful impetus, many of them taking us into worlds of impossible scenarios often peopled by odd cone-hatted characters. He will deliberately provide comedic titles, such as Police Dog Stand-Off. The depictions are unnervingly satisfying. I am reminded of the quotation “God was a comedian playing to an audience who was too afraid to laugh.” These drawings may be dreamlike in their poetic musings on the human condition, but they are forthright in their visuality and couldn’t really be translated to another medium. Buster Keaton had a wonderful pathos less contrived than Chaplin’s – when regarding the qualities of these drawings, this is the closest ‘translation’ that I can suggest.

The show runs till the end of November. I recommend it enthusiastically, and to those people not as familiar with the range of Lewis’s work, it will give a real insight into the achievements of this significant sculptor.

  1. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you for this very thorough review of engaging work which would not have been seen in the flesh by those living out of London .Another good reason for Ab Crit to not only exist but flourish.

  2. sandi slone said…

    Extraordinary sculpture and wonderful writing. Wish I could see the show. The drawings must be seen en masse , I imagine, but they look lilting here.