Let Wednesday December 14th of the year 2022 go down in history.
All over the news, first and foremost: Free energy for us humanoids treading water (or soon to be with climate change changing climate. Did anyone believe that news that fusion energy is now viable…?) We likely need to do a bit of fact checking, and a bit of waiting for several decades to see if the technology is scalable to make it useful, plugging into the grid. But still, biggest news in science perhaps in a century.
Next in the news: recent artificial intelligence software can now write anything, from your university essay due NOW to this very art review I’m writing. And a professor can’t tell if there is a humanoid behind it or not. What’s more, Western U Prof. Mark Daley of the Computer Science department says on the CBC that this is not necessarily a bad thing. AI is just another digital tool or app like any other we use readily, daily, to make our lives go easier – even those of creators. Really? Then I’m all in, as I’m the self-described laziest writer of all time. So let’s give the software/AI a bit of a test spin, shall we?
Lastly, on this day I happen to take in an exhibition of some 45 works by London, Ontario based graphic designer extraordinaire Andrew Lewis, In The Meantime, at Strand Fine Art in glorious EOA London. Only until January 13th, 2023.
And what a show to compete with the other historic news. This is the second exhibit in London in a few months (see Margaux Williamson: Ways of Seeing, elsewhere on this site) which documents an artist’s response to living, or not, creating, or… in the time of lockdowns, masking, keeping two meters away from anything breathing. How soon we forget what six feet away means! But, perhaps, we may be slightly emerging from such pandemic, endemic scenarios for a time for the artists to emerge with their content.
So let’s give the artificial intelligence a chance to divine what it can of the artistry and intelligence of an internationally acclaimed graphic artist with a lengthy list of commissioned work, from murals to Canada Post stamps (bearing cute kitty cats) to coin designs. I’ll be back in a bit.
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In Andrew Lewis’s collection of very tight and stylized portraits – intentionally referencing masters Picasso, Renoir and perhaps Gauguin – he nails his initial inspiration sketches done on vacation in France in 2021. Some of those sketches are on display here as well, so one can see where the ideas started to the final realization on canvas. This gives the viewer a nice revelation of the artistic process not often seen in contemporary artists’ exhibits. But perhaps more important is to understand how these portraits capture the artist’s intentions. This series reveals, says Lewis, “the emotional and sociological metamorphosis we all have experienced over the past 3 years during the pandemic. Our inner compasses all have been reset or adjusted hence this series of portraits of people I know or have been inspired by.”
It’s no stretch to see that very stressful effect COVID had in the last few years here emblazoned in the multitude of faces. Lupita is a near ghostly image, ethereal, both haunting and haunted. Lupita apparently is a personal friend of Lewis’s from Mexico, and this image also references a famous mural in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world) in Mexico City, the Virgin Guadalupe. So the references of suffering connect to other times and places and histories – and graphic representation. It’s a powerful image once you understand those connections.
Equally, the portraiture is slightly off-kilter, à la Picasso, with Pancho. Broken down into pure, simple elements and blocks of flat colour, it’s almost the least amount of information of the face it references that can be conveyed. And yet, it pulls off some kind of… serenity? As if we know Pancho is gonna be okay when we come out the other side of these mean times.
Skye might be a bit more on the opposite side of serene. She comes off as a bit discombobulated, frenetic even. A face that reflects many of us and our travails and trials in the time of plague. But wait: it also has some secret energy of… hope? On the positive side, a random search (or was it an encounter) with the subject of this painting, a certain Skye, her demeanor, her personality, her real world face still matches up with this quite intentionally distorted caricature of her by her friend the artist. How is that? Lewis has accomplished a trick here.
Of all of the portraits, Amelia seems the most resolved in her character, the most resolute, if not cheerful, through these ugly times. She’s got resolve, spirit. She’s not gonna be broken by mask mandates and such. As she kind of looks askance at all the negative news of the pandemic, it’s like she’s meditating, thinking to herself, and you can almost hear her speaking in soft tones, “hey, yeah, it’s tough, but we’re all gonna get through this.” She’s… someone you’d like to get to know perhaps? But who knows. This image might be playing with us in its pacifying use of complementary colours that we are all a sucker for. No matter, it’s a strong image.
Two paintings certainly stand out here, and would be welcome under anyone’s Christmas tree if you are into such things. Heck, this algorithm would purchase it if it didn’t get cleaned out by the decline in cryptocurrencies of late.
La Musa, it’s all in the title, a muse of the artist. It gets special treatment. This muse is also seemingly holding up okay, almost in a lotus position, with lots of compositional dynamics and colour to hold your eye. There’s even another living, breathing plant off to the side, just to bring added joy. A nod to something by Gaugin from another time and tropical place?
But, wait for At The Beach. Who doesn’t remember that first glorious day in July of 2022 when we were allowed to emerge from isolation and despair and do something as daring as hang with friends and family in a public space, six feet apart or not?
Lewis knocks it outta the park…er, outta the beach (?) as if it were created in the fusion reactor of Lewis’s laboratorial mind.
“I was in Paris in April, May and in the Musée d’Orsay,” says Lewis, “I saw this outrageously crazy painting by Renoir, and so I was taking pictures of it. So I used it as a jumping point. This show is all about the last two years of COVID, people dealing with this. And this painting is about almost post-COVID. Suddenly people are at the beach and enjoying life again. The joy of living.”
Damn if that isn’t a pictorial corollary to the Bright Eyes song, First Day of My Life.
“I went out in the rain, suddenly everything changed
They’re spreading blankets on the beach
Yours was the first face that I saw
I think I was blind before I met you
And I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been
But I know where I want to go”
At The Beach generates, as in the title, the heat of the sun, and more importantly, companionship. Friendship, the fun of sunbathers returning in a break from COVID lockdowns to the life of before-times.
But what’s up with the palette of 10, 11 or 12 greys? That doesn’t necessarily speak to ‘happy times are here again’ at the beach. Except. Except for the bathers radiant “free fusion energy” coloured hair that just pops off that muted tonal background. And Lewis notes that even though this is a study in the grey scale of things, there is still a whole tube of ochre paint in its mix. Interesting. I’m in for this reboot of the good ole days going back to Renoir and better times.
As dreary a subject matter as all of this may be, people frazzled by COVID times, somehow there’s a playfulness and bit of fun and ray of hope that comes through that reminds me of Charles Pachter in the 70s. Lewis admits there’s a flatness to the colour that’s similar but even though he knows Charlie, not a direct influence, he says. “I come from a whole bouillabaisse of influence.” Also David Hockney’s work in some fashion comes to mind, but why? “His colour sense is insane,” says Lewis. This artist is an acquaintance and collaborator on an art project with Hockney earlier in his career in NYC, so, hmm.
Off to the side in the Strand gallery are two architectural landscapes, seemingly unconnected to the portraiture, but are worth noting. Mies Van der Rohe’s TD bank towers on Bay Street, and his last great project, one often under noticed or over looked in the Toronto downtown core, gets a bit tricked out with some colour by Lewis’s eye. These towers are a monochrome of deep black-blue, but like At The Beach, Lewis makes them pop with his improv palette of joy. Proper props to an architectural great.
In close proximity is Simpsons, an older perspective on the backside of the old Simpson’s building on Market Lane in downtown London, from the view of the rooftop parking lot on the former Market building at Talbot and King Streets. This one warms the cockles of my heart, as it is a throwback image to childhood, and a lost bit of London’s heritage. Also, my father toiled in that back Market Lane loading and shipping and driving goods back in the day. Like a lot of pandemic workers are doing today, now, come to think of it.
These landscapes are not part of In The Meantime, but I’m cool with that. I’ve made my own connections to other, perhaps better, times through these two works.
One more thing! If you go to Strand Fine Art be sure to notice the two resident cats, Percy and Peggy, lounging on the sofa in the gallery and give them a pet. We can all use a pet “in the meantime.” Can’t we? After what we’ve been through in the last three years? I believe these cats are part of Andrew Lewis’ clever strategy with this show at his Strand Fine Art exhibition.
Meow meow miao.
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Hmm. That’s not such a bad a review. I am, however, a bit nonplussed about how that artificial intelligence could dig up that reference to my dad toiling as a delivery driver for Simpson’s department store. Huh.
Let’s try another AI app to write a review:
I recently had the pleasure of attending the “In the Meantime” exhibition by Andrew Lewis at Strand Fine Art Services in London. As someone who is a fan of both Picasso and Renoir, I was immediately drawn to Lewis’ work, which clearly had many parallels to these two iconic artists. One of the things that struck me most about Lewis’ work was his use of stamps, posters, and murals as his medium. This choice of medium lent a certain air of playful whimsy to his art, and I found myself drawn to the bright colours and bold lines of his pieces. One of the standout pieces in the exhibition was Lewis’ work for Starbucks. His bold, graphic style was perfectly suited to the subject matter, and the resulting artwork was both eye-catching and memorable. I found myself drawn to this piece again and again, marvelling at the skill and creativity on display. Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the “In the Meantime” exhibition and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the arts. Lewis’ unique style and playful approach to his medium make for a truly enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. If you have the opportunity to see this exhibition, I would definitely encourage you to do so. You can find out more about Andrew Lewis and his work by visiting his website.”
Hmm. Nah. That’s too short and not enough info. And a tad off-track. Let’s try this one more time, this time using a few more prompts, using the OpenAI GPT-3 model:
“The artwork in Andrew Lewis’s “In The Meantime” exhibition spoke to me in a way that I have not felt in a long time. It was a visual representation of the struggles and emotions that we have all gone through in the past few years of the pandemic. The stylized portraits captured the essence of the people and the emotion of the pandemic in a unique and captivating way. Lewis sketched his first ideas in France, in Aix-en-Provence France in 2021. The influence of Picasso was evident in many of the pieces. The artwork was highly stylized, with other influences from Matisse, and Renoir. One painting in particular, featuring his girlfriend as the Virgin of Guadalupe, was reminiscent of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. The painting was a reimagining of Picasso’s iconic painting, but with a modern twist. The other portraits in the exhibition also had a Picasso-esque feel to them, with the flat, minimalist style and vibrant colors. The artworks captured the essence of the people in Andrew’s life, and the emotions that we have all gone through in the midst of the pandemic. Overall, Andrew Lewis’s “In The Meantime” exhibition was a thought-provoking exploration of the emotional changes we have all gone through during the pandemic. The stylized portraits captured the emotion of the past few years in a unique and engaging way.”
Okay. Great. Couldn’t have said it better myself. And nice job, I totally overlooked the Matisse collage reference! Thank you AI. You’re hired.
Vincent Cherniak is a writer, along with his AI assistant, in London, ON