Sunday, June 13, 2010

Jeff Lewis - Artist Interview

I first saw Jeff Lewis's work for an online print project called 20 x 200, intended to make art affordable and the concept of collecting approachable. With Jeff's explosive use of color and dynamic circles (a personal favorite) I instantly knew I had to contact him and find out more about his work. I first met Jeff in his Bushwick studio about a year ago. We talked with ease about our love for painting and yoga....and also commiserated about the nature of the art world. Now, a year later, he generously allowed me to return to his studio to see his latest work and answer some of my questions. In his own words....

How long have you been painting? When did you know that you wanted to be an artist and pursue art?
I started painting when I was 15 and basically haven't stopped. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee which has a good underground music scene but not a lot of art. I always liked looking at art books of various abstract artists (Pollock, De Kooning, Kline) and got a hold of some monographs (Miro, Tapies, Dali) of European artists.
I dropped some acid on Thanksgiving and did some paintings with a friend in 1984. I was 15 and I think this is when my epiphany to pursue art and painting really crystallized. I still have the painting framed at home. In high school, art was what I knew I wanted to do. I graduated in 1988. Then I got a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art and Design, got to travel a bit and see some real paintings in museums and then knew that NYC was the place I had to be. I came up here sight unseen with $500, and a place to stay for 3 weeks on avenue B and 10th. This was in 1992. I was out of school a year which was quite a transitional and lonely time for me- but I was painting. I went to Parsons and finished my MFA in 1995. I then found my first studio in Tribeca and stayed there for 11 years and then did the exodus to Bushwick in search of space- which I really needed - I work really large.

I was initially drawn to your work because of the pattern and circular geometry. What is the significance of the concentric circle to you?
I can't say what the significance is except that it it is a wonderfully therapeutic shape for me to paint. It feels good.

What is your work about? Is it integrated with science at all?
The work is about practice. "Practice and all is coming" is what my yoga teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois always said. It is not an analysis of anything. I enter a special space or trance when I paint. It's a sensation or feeling that has no explanation. It is purely intuitive and based in abstract expressionism.
Your paintings have a mandala quality- is your work meant to be meditative for the viewer, or is it more meditative for you in practice?
Both. If the painting is successful. Some paintings have it, some don't. Sometimes a painting has it and I ruin it by fucking with it too much and overworking it. And sometimes, I am able to pull a painting back from being a mess by just making one special move on it. I love Mandala, Yantra, Textiles, and Pattern.

You are very involved with yoga- is this something that has become part of your work at all?
Painting is a practice just as yoga is a practice. And in addition it must become integrated into your daily life in order to advance.

I know you’ve spent a fair amount of time in India- do you find that India specifically or travel to other places has made a lasting impact on your paintings?
India is a state of mind and I can sometimes bring it into my work. I love India. I like Islamic pattern and my travels in Islamic countries has definitely influenced me.

How do you describe your work overall?
I do not like to label it, but one could say that it is neo-psychedelic abstraction. I have several artistic practices in my art practice. Usually if someone asks, I say it is abstract, large, obsessive, and rooted in the New York School.

Can you generally describe your artistic progression over the years? How did you get to where you are now?
I count my blessings. I have been very lucky in finding benefactors, patrons, and collectors and not having to hold a real job. I have never stopped. You can't slow down and get discouraged, because I would have quit a long time ago if I listened to peoples' criticism. It seems some people get very far with little talent and others have great talent and suffer. It's the nature of the world.

Who or what is your work influenced by? Do you have particular favorite artists?
I like so many. But lets say I love Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionists, and the New York School- Andy Warhol, Stella, minimal artists, monochrome painters, and De Kooning. Generally, I like painters and artists who make things with their hands, but I can also appreciate Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Donald Baechler is a sensational artist and has been a friend of mine through the years. The list goes on and on.

What is your favorite piece of all time that you’ve created and why?
They are all my favorite. Some speak to me more than others and different times, and generally because I have several bodies of work. Some people prefer, let's say, my oval paintings to my grid drawings, or they really don't like my older oval paintings, but love the new ones. Different strokes for different folks, but I love them all.

Do you listen to music (if so, what?) or do you have any particular rituals as part of working in your studio?
I listen to all sorts of music. I love Indian devotional Music. When you paint you spend a lot of time alone so you have lots of music to listen to. I recently have been painting in silence which is intense and very nice also.
Some of your pieces utilize bold color, others are intensely detailed black and white pencil drawings- are they separate series, or do they complement each other?
They are all a part of my artistic practice. The drawings sometimes help me focus and get me psyched to paint.

The bulk of your paintings are quite large. Last year, I saw that you were doing a lot of smaller paintings on paper. Is a larger scale format more preferable to you?
I love large scale- I read that Barnett Newman said about his large work that it was like a movie at a large scale. They take on monumental form and envelope the viewer and can also suck them into another plane.

Where do you like to go for inspiration or find sanctuary? (A favorite museum, your own work space, or out in the woods enjoying nature, surfing, etc.)
I love to visit MOMA when it isn't too crowded. Getting into nature, especially the mountains or sea is great. I also have a floatation tank (sensory deprivation) in my home that I use on a daily basis.

I saw some of your paintings included in the Fountain Art Fair in New York this past year. What is your artistic future? Do you have any specific projects or exhibitions coming up in 2010-2011?
Right now, I have a group of large drawings in pop-up gallery in a store front curated by Jennifer Garcia of We-Are-Familia. It is located at 539 Atlantic Avenue (in Brooklyn) and is up for the month of June. It is quite spontaneous, and I must say that I am really just going with the flow. The response so far has been great.

Also, I will be included in a a group show called Swell, curated by Jacqueline Miro that is spread out over three galleries in Chelsea- Nyehaus, Frederic Petzel, and Metro Pictures. The final decision on the works being shown hasn't been made, but I think I will be showing some very large paintings and some drawings!

Wish Me Luck! Peace.


  1. A very talented artist and a dear friend. Jeff's art expresses the psyche of the collective man at a symbolic, colorful, and primordial level.

  2. I just received this article and am struck by Jeff's progress! Jeff has been working to be successful in the circle of creative artists. As his father, my word of encouragement has been to be steadfast and you will be discovered when you pass the age of 40! John Lewis

  3. Thank you for stopping by and reading the interview. My favorite part of this story is arriving in New York with $500 and making it happen.