Published  05/02/2020

Tony Lewis – interview: ‘I’ve got to wear a Tyvek suit, a ventilation mask, two pairs of gloves and two pairs of shoes whenever I go to the studio’

Tony Lewis – interview: ‘I’ve got to wear a Tyvek suit, a ventilation mask, two pairs of gloves and two pairs of shoes whenever I go to the studio’

The artist explains the lengths he must go to in order to create his signature graphite ‘floor drawings’ and talks about his latest exhibition, at Massimo de Carlo, Milan, based on the legendary 1965 Cambridge debate about race between James Baldwin and William F Buckley Jr

Tony Lewis: The Dangers (As Far As I Can See), installation view, Massimo De Carlo, Milan / Belgioioso, 22 January – 14 March 2020. Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.


The Chicago-based artist Tony Lewis’s practice centres on the interface between language and drawing, using graphite as his medium – mostly in powder form in copious, noxious quantities – which permeates the surface of his work, giving it a distressed texture. Lewis (b1986, Los Angeles) often starts from popular cultural texts – such as Life's Little Instruction Book by H Jackson Brown Jr and Calvin and Hobbes comic strips – from which he extracts fragments and recontextualises them, allowing new meanings to emerge.

An important source material has been video footage of the legendary debate that took place at Cambridge University in 1965 between the author and civil rights activist James Baldwin and the writer William F Buckley Jnr, considered by many to be the godfather of American conservatism. The motion, “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American negro?”, was won by Baldwin. The debate has come to be seen as emblematic of intellectual discourse around race and white privilege in America. For Lewis, who is African American, it has been something of an obsession, driving a body of work for the past nine years.

Tony Lewis. ...What Are We Going To Do With The Negroes..., 2019. Graphite and Epson UltraChrome ink on paper, 167.6 × 230 × 6.3 cm (67 × 90 1/4 × 2 1/4 in). Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

The fruits of this labour are showcased in his current exhibition, at Massimo de Carlo in Milan, which derives its title from Buckley’s comment: “Where the negro is concerned, the danger as far as I can see at this moment, is that they will seek to reach out for some sort of a radical solutions on the basis of which the true problem is obscure.”

The show presents four drawings featuring printed stills of Buckley frozen in flamboyant gestures from the debate, on Lewis’s trademark graphite-worked  paper. His accompanying phrases form the titles of the works. The process of breaking down Buckley’s performance and isolating his words and gestures highlights the subtly couched language of racial prejudice beneath his rhetorical flourishes.

The other works in the show exemplify different strands of Lewis’s practice and link obliquely to the overarching themes of race and language. His 2019 work roloc fo elpoeP (People of color backwards) belongs to an ongoing series depicting words, or parts of words, floating on paper in disordered arrangements. In dismantling language and undermining its authority, Lewis exposes the inequities and inadequacy of existing linguistic and power structures. Another body of pencil-drawn works features abstract biomorphic forms around a glyph based on the John R Gregg shorthand system of notation. Each glyph represents a word used by Buckley in the debate.

Tony Lewis. roloc fo elpoeP, 2019. Pencil, coloured pencil and graphite powder on paper, 203 × 162.5 cm (80 × 64 in). Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

Lastly, three “floor drawings”, created in a physically strenuous, performative process using graphite powder on monumental sheets of paper, are positioned sculpturally – two perched on chairs facing off the Buckley works and one crumpled on the floor. The sheer range in scope of these works, which push to extremes what can be done with graphite and paper, demonstrates how Lewis is radically redefining notions of drawing. I spoke with him by Skype to Milan during the show’s installation.

Elizabeth Fullerton: Many of the titles of your works in the Milan show quote or reference Buckley’s words but not Baldwin’s. What is behind your fascination with Buckley?

Tony Lewis: I think the interest to begin with was to try to understand a position that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. But what’s interesting about William F Buckley Jnr is that he has a way of speaking that is extremely charming, eloquent and interesting to listen to because of his cadence, the way he talks, the way he argues. For me, it was a weird moment where I don’t like what’s being said, but the person saying it is very convincing. It’s a perspective that has been historically extremely dangerous and lays the bedrock for a lot of contemporary methods of dealing with political strategies. It gives me a window into the psychology or the insecurity or fear of someone who says things like that. The side of the debate I don’t need to talk about is Baldwin. If I can give people Buckley and they can eventually get to Baldwin through that, that’s the best thing, but, for me, the conversation begins with Buckley.

Tony Lewis. ...The Rhetorical Momentum That Some Of Their Arguments Are Taking..., 2019. Graphite and Epson UltraChrome ink on paper, 167.6 × 230 × 6.3 cm (67 × 90 1/4 × 2 1/4 in). Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

EF: It is strange how, by zooming in on Buckley’s gestures and expressions, you expose the unappealing import of his words.

TL: Obviously, I’ve been looking at Buckley for a long time on my laptop or listening to versions of the speech and writing about it, playing with the imagery. Then I started fragmenting the images. I used to pause it randomly, look at what he looks like and go back and record what he’s saying. There’s a moment when he says there isn’t a university in the United States where Mr Baldwin isn’t the toast of the town and his hand’s up, his tongue’s out and he looks drunk, like he’s holding an imaginary glass. It’s weird to find moments like that.

EF: Presumably you were drawn to this historic debate because of the way the arguments resonate in the US today.

TL: Absolutely. When I was first exposed to that debate it was in school and I only saw James Baldwin’s side, so I saw him just kill it for 30 minutes on film, which was mind-blowing, but then I realised it was a debate. I did research and learned about Buckley. I don’t have a lot to say about Buckley in general … but he debated and had arguments and opinions. Whether or not he was manipulative, he still talked to people and that is something that I feel has absolutely gone from public space. It’s been replaced by non-dialogue and that has drastically affected what people think. The mythologies get created because they don’t talk to each other.

Tony Lewis. Untiled 7, 2016. Graphite powder, paint and tape on paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

I tend to talk about one quote from Baldwin from the debate  as a way to frame this work: “What is dangerous here is … the turning away from ... anything any white American says.” That is the impetus for this nine-year project. It’s a way to counteract Baldwin’s fear, and take his warning as a directive or instructions for a performance. It’s very simple, it’s just about sitting and listening [to Buckley]. 

EF: How have your feelings around Buckley evolved since you began working on it in 2011?

TL: It’s become more of a formal and aesthetic exercise than I anticipated. It’s also become much more of a physical and emotional performance when I’m in the studio making stuff. Ultimately, the whole performance of nine years of watching and rewatching this footage of Buckley is in the service of making interesting drawings. I don’t want to let that get away from me. The material is there to be thought about and ruminated over, but it’s also there for me to build a drawing. Obviously, there’s a moment when those two things happen at the same time. Things become more action-oriented, more about sweat and large pieces of paper and the protective gear I wear and the mess in the studio in relationship to Buckley’s face. Those things start to collide and that becomes an emotional, very pointed way of dealing with it. There is something personal and cathartic about being in such a close relationship to Buckley’s face, his language, your own personal response in the physicality of the studio.

EF: How do you achieve the distinctive surface texture that runs through most of your works?

TL: That’s second nature by now because it’s just describing the studio space. The studio is probably in its third or fourth iteration in Chicago. It’s a pretty intense experience you walk into. The floor is completely covered with loose graphite powder. I have way too much of it and I’ve had way too much of it for a very long time. It’s basically all over the floor, the walls, on the chairs, the fridge is completely covered. That idea of the studio came about in 2009, 2010. It’s a room that just gives me a sense of clarity and purity so I can start making a drawing. It’s a way for me to feel conceptually comfortable and physically uncomfortable at the same time. The floor itself ends up generating a lot of energy and different types of work that happen all the time. That space is where a lot of the drawings are made and stored right next to other bodies of work. They go up on wall, I look at them, work on them, I put them on the ground, work on them there, I stack them up, large thin sheets of paper stored away on the floor while I’m working on other things, and a lot of shuffling goes on.

Tony Lewis. Untitled 10, 2018. Graphite powder, paint and tape on paper, dimensions variable. Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

It’s a very rhythmic relationship that the studio has with all the different objects, so when I'm talking about Buckley, his image essentially falls into that rhythm and shuffling, going up, going down, being stepped on, rolled up, flipped over, all while the powder is literally everywhere. It creates a whirlwind of action, movement, labour, sweat and mark-making and gives me a way to not have such a precious relationship to the drawings, but have a complete overview of what’s happening in the room at a given time. I have to think about 30 drawings at once so they end up being together probably more than they should.

EF: The drawing strands form a symbiotic relationship, despite coming from very different conceptual places?

TL: Yes, I think so. Whenever I bring a fresh sheet of paper into the room, it needs a good amount of time before I’m comfortable with it. I had the experience with those colour [glyph] drawings when I made them in 2016, because it didn’t feel they belonged in the room. They had to prove themselves and go through this process of the studio. That powder relaxes the paper, flattens it. It’s almost like the room is a great equaliser.

EF: The silver and gold palette in your new glyph drawings is noticeably more muted than in the earlier ones.

TL: That’s a pre-existing collaboration of colours that I can bring into the mix and see what happens. It’s a way for me to create contrasts so I can see the language better. So silver and gold allow me to think: “OK, I don’t have to try to think about what shade of blue or orange or green.”

It begins with the language, which is stenography. Each of those drawings starts with a graphite symbol or glyph. I sketch out the word, which ends up being the foundation, and from there I can riff off that. These text drawings are a way for me to think about some of the most basic levels of drawing involving shape, line, colour, language and getting to a place where all those things can happen at once. I obviously have very specific influences for how those drawings were built. Whenever I talk about them, I always refer to [American modernist] Stuart Davis and his Egg Beater series of drawings, but the conversation is also about Eva Hesse’s biomorphic drawings from the 1960s.

Tony Lewis. Agree, 2019. Graphite, pencil, and colored pencil on paper mounted on wood, 193 × 255 × 2.5 cm (76 × 100 1/2 × 1 in). Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

EF: What is the significance of the single words represented in these new glyph drawings: Society, Man, Agree, Touch?

TL: I was thinking about Buckley and his language. They are single words in and of themselves, but they come from the debate. The one titled Society is because there’s one moment where he says something to the effect that the most noble society in the world is America, and it jumped out at me. It’s a really simple way to be thinking about that debate.

EF: Your work is so diverse in form and concept. Why do you describe all of it as drawing?

TL: Conceptually and linguistically, it’s really important because it starts as a really simple definition about pencil and paper. It’s a very specific material and language that allows me to think clearly about what I’m doing. And then, from there, how do we find new ways to make drawings? The floor drawings are very sculptural, but it’s really important that they are graphite powder on paper and two-dimensional, just massive versions of drawings that take over space.

I also have really tiny Calvin and Hobbes drawings, which take me five minutes to make, and they do things that the floor drawings and shorthand drawings can’t do. For me, it’s really important to have five, six, seven ways of making drawings, because all those different formats have their own history and, hopefully, their own future.

Tony Lewis. Touch, 2019. Graphite, pencil, and coloured pencil on paper mounted on wood, 193 × 255 × 2.5 cm (76 × 100 1/2 × 1 in). Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan / London / Hong Kong.

EF: What is the appeal of graphite powder? It must be dangerous to work with.

TL: There are a lot of health risks. I’ve got to wear a Tyvek suit, a ventilation mask, two pairs of gloves and two pairs of shoes whenever I go to the studio. In terms of the material, graphite is basic to drawing. It has a lot of potential and a lot of meaning. It helps me have a relationship to drawing in a way I can control and is a powerful metaphor for my body. I can say I’m the thing you’re spreading all over the floor, I’m the thing you’re walking on, I’m the thing that you’re looking at, I’m the material you can use to make drawing. It ends up being something that, on one hand, is a sooty dirty powder-like material, but it can also be extremely corporeal and visceral in terms of what kind of body is present. That’s why I like those floor drawings. When I sculpt them, I’m thinking about my body and the space I take up and the space people take up.

EF: Yes, there is an implicit physicality in all your work.

TL: The size of those large drawings on paper are my wingspan, my height. The studio is a very athletic space, there’s a lot of bending, pulling, pushing, lifting, a lot of awkward physical positions. The thing between my body and the work is the labour and that’s a conversation that is very much part of the floor drawings. A lot of times, there’s sweat marks on the drawings while they’re being made because you’re in a suit, your body’s completely covered, you’ve got a rag, sweat is falling from your protective glasses and you’re just rubbing it into the floor.

EF: This show features three floor drawings that originated as site-specific installations. These continually evolving drawings function differently from your other works, not being rooted in language, and serve as a skin or memory of places they have been exhibited.

TL: The floor drawing has its own process and is an entirely different conversation. We cover the gallery floor with rolls of red butcher paper, using masking tape to hold the paper in place. We paint over the entire surface and, once that’s dry, we pour the powder down and rub it in over the entire floor. Then we sweep and vacuum the excess powder, leaving a smooth, dull, dark grey, slightly reflective surface. I’ve got 11 floor drawings from 2011 to now. Each one has its own exhibition history and travelogue. They’re always born on the occasion of an exhibition, a thing that audience members walk on with protective gear for their feet, but after that show is over they are pulled up like a sticker, folded up, pushed into a box and shipped back. From there, we store it and might send it off to another show and that process repeats. If they never get to show again, I still like the idea that they exist and had their moment.

Tony Lewis: The Dangers (As Far As I Can See) is at Massimo de Carlo’s gallery in Palazzo Belgioioso, Milan, until 28 March 2020.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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