The paintings of Sally Lewis play intriguing games of hide and seek, of seeing and recognition, in the interplay of surface, iconography and pictorial space. The viewer’s gaze is continually interrupted and deflected away from easy conclusions about what is represented within the paintings. The acts of perception and recognition are in constant tension as semi-transparent layers of fabric deceptively obscure images embedded on canvas, paper or board. The eye is made to move constantly between pattern and image.
The stretched fabric layers that overlay the images and drawn and painted forms are reminiscent of veil, skin, or even the topsoil of an archaeological dig; thin and transparent enough to reveal forms beneath but opaque and optically disturbing enough to prohibit any reading of a uniform visual space or the illusionistic appearance of objects and their unambiguous identity.
Lewis’s paintings ‘simulate’ memories, presenting an impression that seems to refer to times when certain events or objects May have been, or actually did exist. Like memories, the paintings have the quality of things that are not fully present.
This is not to say that Lewis’s work deals with ‘absences’, but rather with processes of synthesis and reconstruction that are involved in the act of painting. Lewis de-limits conventional distinctions between abstract, symbolic, real and imaginary form in the pursuit of an iconography which is highly personal, but is also visually innovative and grounded in recognisable grammars.
Her paintings explore a ‘Hybrid’ visual language in which process, material, line, colour, illusion, signification, and visual ambiguity are developed as simultaneous vocabularies enabling journeys of reconstruction, processing the raw data of experience and personal worlds into visual objects that possess a psychological as well as a visual meaning. Lewis is concerned with the way visual languages of painting can produce a physical and visceral ‘immediacy’ and can be capable of reference and signification.
Lewis’s work takes a subversive stance in relation to our ‘knowledge of things. Visual knowledge’ is dependent in part on context, and this is exactly what her work will strip away. It may seem contradictory to describe such visually seductive works as subversive; but seductiveness is indeed an aspect of their particular presence, it is also developed as a strategy that is concerned with how the look of things is codified.
The paintings play with the ambiguous relations between appearance and meaning as a play on vision and consciousness, and on the image’s relation to a system or ‘psychological space ‘ that is both personal and somehow belonging to a wider narrative .As the full materiality of pictorial objects in her paintings dissolve back into the ‘optical veil’ of the patterns they initially seem to be behind; they have the quality of dream images that float by and must have a narrative and yet do not.
As painting, like other imaging processes, has banished assumptions of transparency, there has been a parallel transformation of the viewer-spectator. Objectivity in the image has been revealed as artifice and language, and the spectator’s attitude to appearances has become more critical. The process of looking is now also an act of interpretation.
Lewis’ work operates within these new spaces of process, material and interpretation. Her painting explores alternate vocabularies of erasure and reconstruction, in which the hieroglyphics of the ‘narrative’ of seeing separate into images that have the uncertainty of memory.
Within the sweeping history of textiles, Sally Lewis’s work, which almost always employs fabric material, can be seen asglancing back to one particular time and place: 1760s France.It was then that the technological advancement in printing techniques allowed the fabric designers of what became known as the “toile de Jouy”—named after the factory in Jouy-en-Josas, near Paris—to experiment with the images on their cottonsor linens. Etched in copper plates and then later ingeniously in copper rollers, over the years, these designs—quite the hitamong French consumers—came to include everything from floral or chinoiserie patterns, to political subjects, genre scenes, mythological tales, fables and references to popular literature.Though we would refer to these designs today as “motifs,” that word, whose origin is French, wasn’t employed in the English language until almost a century later. Motifs are central to thework of English-born Lewis, acting as her own imprimerie onfound objects, thereby as the link between the distinctively personal and the bland, establishing a lineage between herown mark making and that of the material, made sometime, somewhere by someone else; it’s as if she is talking over andthrough the history of a particular piece of fabric. Like the“toile de Jouy,” Lewis’s motifs, imprinted or painted on doilies, tablecloth, denims and other vintage fabrics that the artist has scavenged, also cover a broad and unexpected range—flowers, illustrations, portraits of iconic modern-day figures (Bowie,Hepburn) and, most strikingly, skulls. Studs affixed along the edges of some of the works, help further transform the dainty fabric from a domestic, staid thing into a hardcore, alternative culture banner.
Paul Cezanne used the expression “aller sur le motif” to indicate painting en plein air. Lewis’s work has the quality ofplein air painting: the nature-evoking elements, the sense of serenity, light and immediacy, and also, in some, the appearance of “weathering,” be it in the bleeds or the splotchiness.Lewis’ art is as much an extension and development of a fine arts tradition, as it is an attempt to sunder the associations that these fabric objects often evoke. There is evident “tougheningup” of the demure implication of the material but there is alsoa bit of roughening of the delicate cloth, both in the violent connotations produced by the imagery and via the uneven or irregular shapes and contours. If not so much a whiff of anger, then certainly a streak of anti-diffidence runs through these recalcitrant statements of gender-ificaiton. They stand erect, ready to attract and defy in equal measures.