Born Detroit, 1966 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / MFA, Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT / Lives Detroit
Richard Lewis’s stark, striking Self Portrait in White Shirt (2004) establishes at a glance the mode of bold, arresting portraiture he has practiced over the last decade and a half. Here, his own half-length, life-size visage dominates a shallow space wherein he reveals himself at a terse, decisive moment. Though a stretched canvas at right appears primed for action, he stands stock still, his flushed face charged with emotion. In particular, the emphatic swabs of thick red and white pigment slashing across his forehead augur a deep-seated determination. Another angsty portrayal of 2004 represents Anthony, a friend whose parted lips and wary glance imply concern and vulnerability in equal measure.
Painted about a year and a half after a six year sojourn in New York (1996-2002), these bare-knuckled portrait suggest Lewis’s affirmative resolve to re-engage with his art and natal environs. In fact, his 2002 reappearance was his second repatriation to his Detroit roots; earlier, after graduation from Yale in 1993, he had relocated to his hometown but stayed only a year and a half before decamping for his six year residency in Gotham.
Resettled in the D post-2002, one of Lewis’s favorite—and reliably available—models became his cousin Tracey, who has posed for a number of transformative likenesses or “takes,” ranging from a cool, composed Tracey (2009), undaunted by a sprained ankle to the professionally attired, “all-business” Tracey in a bright red blazer (2010), and a rakish, summer-attired Tracey Wearing a Hat (2011). In these images, as in many of Lewis’s solo portraits, the figure is centralized and confronts the viewer directly, as in classical European portraiture, stoical African sculpture, and iconic religious pictures. Insisting that “to be a realist painter” is a moral imperative, Lewis devises “makeshift classical paintings” inhabited, paradoxically, by contemporary subjects rendered “like African sculptures—regal and enveloped in thought.”
Notable as well is a raft of ambitious double portraits that caught the attention of critics during his multi-year New York residency. In James and Kelly (1996), two men, seated side by side, face forward and avert eye contact. Yet their gazes in opposite directions intersect and James on the right grasps the arm of his lover’s chair, if not his lover’s arm. A masked person at the rear, preoccupied and wearing a respirator, constructs a sculpture. In another dual depiction, Study Group (1997), Lewis presents himself and a studious friend, the former facing forward, fists clenched, and the latter in profile, opposites ostensibly “studying.” A large, red-figured carpet backdrops and visually augments the seated Lewis (a decorative device that also enlivens James and Kelly), while the rapt reader is set against a green, hilly cityscape. But what are they studying? Revolution perhaps, given the gasoline can and books by James Baldwin and Malcolm X scattered on the floor. A third example, Nelson (1996), the largest at 84 x 48,” is daringly surprising in that the towering Nelson, front and center, overshadows the second figure partially visible behind him, almost as if the portrayal represents a dueling couple—as a John Coltrane poster looms behind.
Closer to home—to both Motown and family—are two affecting double portraits of Lewis’s sisters. Painted more than a decade apart, each conveys the pair’s closeness and separateness. In the 1998 depiction, Kim and Tonya Watching T.V. are scrunched together on a loveseat directing their full attention on the television set in the foreground. Tonya, on the right, turns slightly away from her sibling as well as from whatever is transpiring on the screen; her sidelong glance, as well as her sib’s bland expression, suggests their less than enthralled interest in the unfolding program. Yet the soft, muted palette contributes a measure of intimacy to the scene. In the later, 2015-16 view, titled at present Kim and Tonya (in progress), the duo, once again settled in side-by-side, are snugly swaddled in colorful blankets and shawls, their eyes riveted along parallel tracks. This time, despite the clash of gridded pattern and vivid stripes, their immobilizing cocoons convey filial contentment.
Thus Lewis, keen eyed explorer of souls and their discontents (figures barely crack a smile in his scenarios) focuses on what is truly important—their resilient humanity. For this peripatetic artist, whether in New York or Detroit, some modicum of connection between individuals seems as inevitable as isolation, whether they dwell amidst a cohort of blood relatives or band of like-minded outliers.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, December 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016