Peter Lewis

T1+2 Gallery

Twenty-one large paintings on newspaper, containing hundreds of small images, hung salon-style on the gallery’s thirty-foot back wall. Made over a one-year period and completely concealing the newsprint underneath, the paintings together looked like a vast storyboard or endless comic strip. Many of their small images contain figures in landscapes—sometimes seen from a great distance, sometimes from up close, as in a film by Antonioni, in which tiny unrecognizable figures seen from afar reappear in extreme close-up; the Greek-inspired structures, with their white surfaces and geometric colonnades, look like samples of high modernism.

The exhibition “Meno {2:1}” was loosely inspired by the Meno, one of Plato’s early dialogues. Playing in the background was a reading of the dialogue itself, performed and recorded before the opening, with its sound doubled to create an echo and set to the jazz singing of Jimmy Scott—transforming the text into an indistinguishable overlap of cultures emanating from a disembodied voice. This text is a quintessential Socratic exchange that, rather than resolving the intellectual/ethical question at hand—Can virtue be taught?—serves primarily to expose and undercut the interlocutors’ preconceptions, revealing the persistence of doubt and the limits of knowledge. To get to Peter Lewis’s wall of painted Platonic images one had to pass through a curtain of ordinary newspapers hung from the ceiling in the middle of the gallery, with their usual headlines about the instability of world financial markets, threats of terrorism, murders, and corporate mergers. There is little in the daily paper of the sustained face-to-face debate, the slow unraveling of an argument, the lengthy teasing-out of an idea enacted in Plato’s script—just plenty of tragic faits accomplis.

“Meno {2:1}” expertly combined multiple media—painting, drawing, installation, film, sound, and performance—just as it mixed geographies (Eastern and Western) and time frames (ancient history, modernity, current events). The West has claimed ancient Greece as its cultural cradle, but the Greek philosophers depicted by Lewis, with their Arabian-looking horses and deep olive skin, shown against backdrops of rugged, mountainous landscapes and deserts, look distinctly non-European. Cartoonish images of dark-skinned men wearing togas, caught in intense conversation, recall pictures of the Apostles in an illustrated children’s Bible, and we are made aware of the geo- graphical, cultural, and philosophical links among the many cultures, now thought of as separate, that flourished around the extended Mediterranean: Middle Eastern, African, Southern European.

Who can claim the Greeks as their own? Certainly the gap between the modern West’s definition of democracy and that of the Greeks is as vast as the one between the newspaper’s high-impact photographs of current events and Lewis’s sequence of subtle painted images. The mottled blue and gray surfaces in Lewis’s abstract sections are reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s textured canvases, but Lewis’s images will never resolve into the recognizable contours of Johns’s discreetly patriotic maps of the United States. The edges of Lewis’s map take in a much broader expanse of space and time, as infinitely extendable as this painted archive itself, ready to embrace tomorrow’s newspaper as if in an unending Socratic conversation between past and present. On Kawara’s “Date Paintings” also bring together the daily practice of painting with the daily practice of newspaper reading, activities in which the artist engaged with two very different, very distinct flat surfaces. By painting on the newspaper itself, Lewis suggests that the news has perhaps become too unbearable to sit peaceably alongside the artwork, and might be improved if replaced altogether by art, philosophy, intelligent debate, and a constructive sense of connection between distant cultures. It would be hard to argue with that.

Gilda Williams