Q&A: A Conversation with Zane Lewis
Zane Lewis wants to go the distance. He admittedly thinks like a DJ when creating his work, a veritable zoo of different painterly and sculptural methods that are equally chaotic as they are startlingly refined. ("Zany" would almost be too appropriate here.) Featured in editions #66 and #72 of New American Paintings, Lewis has taken the last year to remove himself from the "gallery game" to focus on making new work. Not long for any one specific studio practice, Lewis is constantly changing his work, moving from method to method, in search of a more challenging application and context. Featured in 2006 as a "(23-Year-) Old Master" in The Wall Street Journal, I caught up with the New York-based San Antonio native last week to find out what he's been up to and why he's into "wall power". —Evan J. Garza
EJG: Tell me about what you’ve been working on recently.
My work has changed so significantly this last year, at least it feels like that for me. Obviously there’s conceptual and aesthetic threads that remain, but it’s very different from the type of work I was making when I was featured in New American Paintings. One year I got the back cover [of the magazine], and it was a large image of a detail shot of one of my drip paintings. They were these paint my number pieces that looked like they were spilling paint out of the shadowboxes they were in. And then when I got the cover [of #72], it was the cut painting style of work with the cut Paris Hilton piece. I am no longer making either of those bodies of work. (Laughing)
Paris, 2007 | Cut acrylic paint, 63 x 63 inches
I tend to work like that as an artist. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of coming up with a certain way of working that’s approaching things in an unconventional way, dishing it out, doing a series, and then I get bored and I want to move on and I want to kind come up with something new and stimulating for me in a new way. So I haven’t made the cut paint paintings in about two years now, and longer since I made the paint by number paintings. I do typically, in my work, have that drip aesthetic. That is still there.
EJG: Given the differences in those two bodies of work, and the amount of time since then, I figured you had moved on to something else. And, honestly, that’s where my curiosity was struck.
Basically, the last solo show I had was a year ago in New York [Watch Me Slowly Death at Mixed Greens]… For that show I threw everything together all at once. I wanted to make cut work, drip paintings, and I had been working with collage-style imagery where I was appropriating things that existed in pop culture and then [I'd cut them up] and add paint drips… I looked at it like I was being a DJ. I looked at it like I was taking a song and remixing it. I wouldn’t call them drawings, I wouldn’t call them paintings, I’d say 'this is a remix.'
I’d tear a magazine ad out of something and kind of reorient it and cut it around and then I’d drip some paint on it coming from the person’s face or mouth, in the same style of [my] giant installations… the idea of taking something that’s already out there and putting a spin on it. I took all these ways of working and threw it all in one space.
There’s one piece in particular, the 8 x 8 ft. painting of Jesus with the crown of thorns, [in which] the image is literally thousands of ads from fashion magazines, layered and layered and layered. I painted on each magazine and glued it until I had an 8 x 8 ft. wall of collage. And then I painted on that. And then I cut the entire image out by hand… and then I stuck it to an 8 x 8 ft. custom mirrored panel, and then I painted on top of that. So it’s this idea of taking something and just destroying it aesthetically, just aesthetically bombarding it… like the way you’d think about composing punk music, putting everything into it and coming at it from all angles. That’s how most of the work was approached.
The overall concept of the body of work had to do with the transient quality of life itself and the ultimate sense of decay. A relationship of mine had fallen apart the year before, so I was in that mode of listening to Joy Division and a lot of other dark stuff, Bauhaus, Misfits. (Laughing.)
(Detail) Untitled (Destroyed Jesus), 2010 | Acrylic and enamel paint with magazine collage on mirrored panel, 96 x 96 x 3 inches. (Studio shot) Private Collection.
EJG: It’s clearly central to your work, but what is it about the concept of the destruction of something you find really compelling?
Sometimes people, with that particular body of work, thought it was really dark and that it was all about death, which—
EJG: I don’t really get that at all. To me, it seems really humorous. I mean, making a portrait of Jesus Christ out of fashion ads? You get the sense that it comes with a teaspoon of sugar.
Exactly. I can understand anyone can have a feeling from something, that’s great, I want viewers to have their own experience, but it wasn’t about that. It was about playing with this idea of the hierarchy of fashion bullshit, and just kind of smashing it up and laughing at it, and asking where do we stand with these icons of culture, the ridiculousness of celebrity. I was commenting on a lot of things.
In that point in time, there was this fuel of street art. [I was] even taking about that a little bit, approaching things with [spray] paint… I was taking something from this cosmetic setting, all about vanity, and taking away painting because [that’s] totally an illusion—it’s cosmetics—and I was destroying that and presenting it in a way it had never been seen before. I kept really wanting to do these smashed Chanel display counters, and I had a really hard time. I was trying to get Chanel to give me these display counters, and I just wasn’t able to do it.
EJG: (Laughing) Well, it gives you something to look forward to for future work.
Exactly. They wouldn’t go for it at the time. But you kind of nailed it, that’s how that body of work was. It wasn’t about dark stuff. Point being, I have moved on from that.
EJG: So tell me about what you’re working on now.
After I did that show, I basically got completely fed up with working with images. I didn’t want to do it anymore. My interest initially, in certain images, was the power of particular images, how some images are so powerful that no matter where you are in the world or what ethnicity you are or what background you have… they affect you because they’re so powerful.
I really became less interested in creating an image and really interested in the idea of the loss of an image… Like how much I could reduce an image—reduce and reduce and reduce and reduce—to where there wasn’t a trace anymore… [as] if the work became much more—I don’t want to use the word ‘abstract,’ I don’t really like that word—much more like making ghost paintings. All of 2010 has been that, this last year has been about coming from a whole new direction, recreating Zane Lewis as an artist, creating a whole new aesthetic.
I’m a conceptual painter. I don’t do things without thinking about the content, the idea, and the meaning behind something. I started thinking about starting from square one with painting, and how Picasso would talk about, “painting is the lie that tells the truth.”
EJG: Yes! That’s where Art Lies got their name.
Ah! Gotcha! I guess that makes sense, hadn’t thought of that (laughing). So basically, I’ve been making sculptures and paintings made completely out of glass and mirrors, working with the idea of compositions that are always altering, always in a state of change. If you're making a painting on a mirror, you have a composition that can never be the same—it changes with the light in the room, it changes when you walk in front of it—that composition is altering. So I’ve been really playing with this idea of pushing that and owning the medium.
(Studio shot) Untitled study, 2010 | Oil, acrylic, and glass on panel, 10 x 8 inches
Obviously one thing leads to another. I started doing smash mirror paintings. I started breaking up thousands of shards of glass, and making sculptures and gluing mirror upon mirror upon mirror and Plexiglas in all different colors and combinations with paint involved... I’m interested in wall power. That’s what I’m drawn to. I love sculpture and I love the presence of sculpture, but I always seem to circle back to something on a wall that has a magnificent power over the viewer.
[Recently] I’m making paintings on mirrors and the heavy focus has been making handmade holograms. They’re crazy. They’re wall pieces, [each] about 6 x 4 ft… You stand in front of these things, and it’s a mirror, the complete mirror, but then you move and an image appears. And then you move again, and the color changes and the image disappears, but all of a sudden the mirror is gold. And then you move again and the image is three colors. And then you look at it again up close, and it’s an infinity box, you can see it repeating itself into the wall.
(Alternate view) Mirror, Mirror, 2009 | Mixed Media, 69 x 51 x 2.5 inches. Private Collection.
EJG: I’m really interested in talking about the boundaries of painting, and finding out, really and truly, where artists are taking painting and what other mediums are influencing that work... where painting starts and ends, and the limits of the grey area in between.
Exactly. I’ve always loved that idea… I’m actually kind of shocked sometimes that painting is still so much considered just to be paint on canvas. And that’s great, that’s such a pure thing. And I love painting, it’s beautiful. But I’m interested in going the distance. I want to show things to my audience in a way they haven’t seen them before.