Emily Cormack

What Do We Show the World?

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This article appears in Art Toi Magazine, November 2020

Richard Lewer’s prolific practice has been an exercise in exposure. How much do we show and of what? In a world of coded practices, what glimmer of self do we expose to the world’s prying eyes? Throughout his 30-year career Lewer has dwelt, without judgement, in the dark and often morally complex domain of human nature, dealing with topics spanning sadness, violence, sadism, corruption and embarrassment. In these spaces how do we decide, on a sliding scale of exposure, what is revealed, and what is not? How much is given?

Early in the Melbourne-based New Zealand artist’s practice he began etching into and corroding texture onto brittle metallic painted surfaces. Rendering form painfully, it was as if he was seeking a kind of transmission between his own broken eczema-prone skin and the tormented surfaces of his paintings. Lewer’s work has, then, always revealed an oscillation in focus between his own self and his subject, with varying degrees of self-exposure offered across each series.

While the early steel works were a direct expression of a fraught inner world, he later turned to the turbulent lives of others, finding in their stories parables for human experience. Over the past 15 years Lewer’s works have seen him become embedded in the personal lives of serial killers, Melbourne’s infamously staunch Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, exorcist priests, gangsters, and even the haunting undead. It’s as if he is seeking in this subject matter a darkness that gives shape to form, with his practice becoming a kind of conceptual chiaroscuro rendering of the human condition. We are being drawn into being, our evils, our fears and our embarrassments laid bare.

<p>Richard Lewer, <em>Last Will &amp; Testament</em>, 2010, acrylic on pegboard, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2020</p>

Richard Lewer, Last Will & Testament, 2010, acrylic on pegboard, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2020

The oscillation between self and subject has slowed in recent years, with the cast of tragic characters gradually being replaced by representations of Lewer’s own experiences and connections. Perhaps the key pivot in his practice came about in the creation of the Last Will & Testament, 2010 – one of a suite of works acquired by the Gallery. Originally installed in Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne, this work is Lewer’s legally binding Will, hand-painted on large boards, witnessed by his lawyer, and still in force today. The work deftly breaches unspoken social codes surrounding the disbursement of worldly possessions, disrupting taboos related to death and money. I clearly remember feeling a curious mix of discomfort and freedom when seeing the work, as Lewer irreverently blew apart the enigma of a Will and the power it wields.

The Last Will & Testament freed up Lewer to reveal more of himself in his work. Rather than choosing subjects as characters, in his next phase he chose subjects empathetically, generating points of connection. This sympathetic approach is typified in the heart-breaking animation work Worst Luck I Am Still Here, 2014. This beautifully articulated story is told using the antiquated visual poetry of an overhead projector, and is an exemplar of Lewer’s extraordinary ability to capture emotion in his abbreviated drawing style. Using DIY stop-frame animation techniques, he shapes the true tragic love story of an elderly couple whose failed suicide pact left the man alive, having already killed his wife and their dogs. The work’s title is taken from a statement the bereft man made ‘. . . I’m still here, worst luck’. In the voiceover Lewer’s emotion is clearly audible, lending the work an awkward tenderness that is telling of his humanity as an artist.

The desire to connect with others through his own misfortune or discomfiture has been a constant throughout Lewer’s practice. Richard’s Disasters series began in 2005 with an annotated map of New Zealand, now in a private collection in Melbourne, which indicated the sites of a range of calamities from the artist’s life story. A near drowning, a ‘broken’ penis and a house fire are just some. The series has expanded now – featuring scores of disasters rendered in small oil paintings or lithographs. Across a succession of works scenes swing from hilarious to heartrending, told with the same snapshot style that captures the key event, and often from Lewer’s own point of view. This ongoing series is like the turning out of Lewer’s most concealed selves, a complete disclosure between himself and the world, a measure of the full shape of him.

The full shape of him. How much of a place remains in us, is carried with us? Expat New Zealanders in Australia often find the seemingly subtle differences between the two countries become chasms as we seek to connect or comprehend the shape of the land that we live in. Orthodox psychotherapy suggests that we are defined by our traumas; that the indelible marks they carve into us determine our lives with unalterable certainty. Our dark outlines give us shape, and similarly a country must reckon with its history to understand its present. The psychic residue persists beyond the event. Lewer’s lens again expanded in the late 2010s when he began to examine the construction of cultural identity through its traumas. The History of Australia, 2018 – now in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection – is a brutal retelling of key events in Australia’s history across nine panels, including pre-colonial time, the First Fleet, the Great Depression, the Stolen Generation, asylum seekers and the Cronulla riots. While the events that feature in The History of Australia are characterised by conflict and unrest, for the companion piece, New Zealand Disasters, 2020, Lewer’s gaze slightly shifted.

<p>Richard Lewer, <em>New Zealand Disasters</em>, 2020, oil and epoxy coated steel, copper, and brass, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2020</p>

Richard Lewer, New Zealand Disasters, 2020, oil and epoxy coated steel, copper, and brass, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2020

This new series does not share the criticality implicit in The History of Australia. Instead, New Zealand Disasters is almost wistful in its re-visitation of some of New Zealand’s psyche-defining moments of catastrophe. In these works, Lewer’s notions of ‘home’ have become defined by moments that bring ‘New Zealand’ to the top of internet search results, that set the country’s name above the fold in red headline, that see it track across the TV as breaking news. Here, Lewer offers us New Zealand as ripple-inducing traumas – the Napier earthquake, the Tangiwai train derailing, the sinking of the Wahine, Flight 901’s crash into Mount Erebus, the Pike River Mine explosion, the Christchurch earthquake, and the Whakaari/White Island eruption. New Zealand rendered a turbulent place, shaken by the violent willful forces of its ever-forming, hyperactive geology, its wild weather, its mistakes of judgement. Lewer’s New Zealanders are pictured from behind, with shoulders slumped, defeated by the enormity of the forces around them. New Zealand Disasters captures the moments when nature ultimately wins, because nature always wins. And perhaps it’s in those moments when the human subject dissolves into disaster, when the codes of our collective norms are done away with, that we are fully exposed, and that the whole story is told.

Exclusive merchandise

Key works by Richard Lewer were featured in All That Was Solid Melts and inspired a collaboration between the artist the Gallery's Retail Manager Emma Pritchard. An admirer of his work, Emma worked with Lewer to create a collection featuring Its true Drawing saved me, 2016. 

Shop the exclusive collaboration with Richard Lewer, available in the Gallery shop and online now