Dale Lewis’ monumental paintings depict the artist’s life experiences rendered from memory. For his second exhibition at Edel Assanti, Fat, Sugar, Salt, Lewis hones in on the area around his home in east London, seen with fresh eyes after a summer spent on residency in New York.
These unsettling works inherit the scale, compositional and narrative structures of canonical art historical painting - renaissance and religious scenes in particular - with devices of ecstasy, metamorphosis, spirituality and sexuality serving as mainstays. These traditions are inverted as much as they are co-opted to suit Lewis’ ends: whilst monumental scale was conventionally reserved for worthy themes – religion, power or wealth – Lewis focuses on what he observes in his immediate surroundings: alcoholism, bad diet, low quality of life, social immobility, nothing ever changing, babies crying, gang violence, filthy streets, road accidents. The pristine surfaces of the historical paintings that he looks to for inspiration are substituted for impasto gesture, where paint is energetically applied revealing the spontaneous creation of the imagery. Lewis’ lyrical style of painting often leaves his works in a state of suspension – underdone rather than overworked, with areas of exposed raw canvas integrated into the composition, and visible impressions of the stabs of brushes rubbed against their surface.
The classical device of metamorphosis recurs frequently – humans and animals swap roles in Special K, which depicts a family picnic in a park in London. The revellers are transformed into the park’s animal residents – pigeons, worms, rabbits and rats. A sunburnt baby becomes an inflamed strawberry; another infant puffs a cigarette whilst adults shovel food and booze against the backdrop of typically British summer bunting. As in many of Lewis’ paintings, the composition centres on one protagonist: Special Kay is one of Lewis’ relatives, a sufferer of Huntington’s disease, rendered as a giant worm in a wheelchair, being fed fried eggs by her carer.
Fat, Sugar, Salt is full of humorous and grotesque depictions of ‘otherness’ that give way to sensitive, transcendent portrayals of the people Lewis encounters, either in his personal life or in momentary passing. Gladioli pays tribute to a young trainee RAF pilot who was murdered in a case of mistaken identity near Lewis’ home, depicted in a crashed spitfire surrounded by commemorative flowers. Other paintings show people standing in line at a supermarket check-out, getting off buses, tending to the injured in a traffic accident. In these portrayals of London life, Lewis taps into another familiar, quintessentially British artistic tradition of rendering the tough realities of contemporary urban society and its fringes through a prism of dark humour and allegory.
Lewis completed a BA in Fine Art at London Guildhall in 2002, and a MFA at Brighton in 2006. He was the recipient of the 2016 Jerwood Painting Fellowship, and completed the Zabludowicz Residency in New York City in 2017. In spring 2018, Lewis will undertake a residency at the Arsenal in Montreal. Lewis’ work features in international collections including the Saatchi Collection, David Roberts Art Foundation and the Zabludowicz Collection. Lewis lives and works in London.