layerings, labyrinths & revelations

ella mudie: ruark lewis survey 1982-2012, part 1

Ruark Lewis and Jonathan Jones, Homeland Illuminations, 1997

Ruark Lewis and Jonathan Jones, Homeland Illuminations, 1997

Ruark Lewis and Jonathan Jones, Homeland Illuminations, 1997

FOR AN ARTIST WHO DEFIES CATEGORISATION, THE PRESENTATION OF A CAREER SURVEY PRESENTS SOME UNIQUE CHALLENGES. NOT ONLY DOES RUARK LEWIS’ THREE DECADES OF PRACTICE CROSS DISCIPLINARY BOUNDARIES, MOVING SEAMLESSLY BETWEEN DRAWING, TEXT-BASED WORKS, INSTALLATIONS, CIVIC INTERVENTIONS, PERFORMANCE, VIDEO AND AUDIO, BUT IT ALSO RAISES A BROAD ARRAY OF CONCEPTUAL CONCERNS.

Frequently with long gestating periods, these concerns have deepened in complexity over time. How then to steer the viewer through such a labyrinthine practice in ways that are legible, accessible and engaging?

In an interview I conducted with Lewis prior to the launch of the first installment of his two-part survey beginning at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in late September (see RT111), it was clear that the artist had given much thought to such a question. He explained his intention to create a certain formality within the main gallery space while activating the outdoor areas in a more informal fashion to encourage visitor interactivity and hands-on engagement. Walking through the installed exhibition a month later, expertly curated by Dr James Paull, I sensed immediately that this approach had paid off. As I paced the open and airy expanse of the Federation Room gallery, there was a sense of elegant restraint in its pared-back organisation, which encouraged visitors to move slowly through its delicately choreographed space and to trace links and discover correspondences between works.

At the eastern end of the gallery, the focal point was the alluring juxtaposition of light and language in Homeland Illuminations (2007). A collaboration between Lewis and urban Indigenous artist Jonathan Jones (with whom Lewis has worked on a number of projects), the floor installation presented fragments of quotations from an oral history belonging to Jones’ grandfather. A Waradjuri man who worked as a wool-classer in western New South Wales in the 1930s and 1940s, his words were stencilled in industrial lettering onto two parallel grids of painted wooden boards. Propped beneath the boards was a network of white fluorescent light tubes emitting a haunting aura around the text. As it simultaneously conveyed a complex economy of relationships and exchange while resisting the fixing of the oral history into a museum object by relaying it in coded form, the installation manifested an intriguing tension between concealment and revelation.

Ruark Lewis, Water Drawings, 1997

Ruark Lewis, Water Drawings, 1997

Ruark Lewis, Water Drawings, 1997

This practice of ‘disguisement’ of narratives through the strategic insertion of voids and ellipses or the layering of elements is a defining characteristic of Lewis’ highly reflexive engagement with text and language. This reflexivity also extends to his responses to the works of authors and poets (see RT 87, p50). Particularly memorable were those works which originated from an enduring dialogue with the works of French novelist, playwright and essayist Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1997). The austere minimalism of the artist book installation Just for Nothing (1997), for example, resonated with the psychological tautness of the play which it translated, Pour un oui ou pour un non, and revealed an early example of Lewis’ use of colour coding as a design principle. A decade later, such principles were extended in the 2007 mixed media installation, An Index of Silence. Featuring abject statements drawn from Sarraute’s play Silence stencilled onto 36 black and red cotton flags, the circumvention of easily graspable slogans with oblique literary phrases produced a displacing reading experience that shifted the viewer onto uncertain ground.

 Ruark Lewis, Red Water Drawing, 1997, detail

Ruark Lewis, Red Water Drawing, 1997, detail

Ruark Lewis, Red Water Drawing, 1997, detail

As I understand it, during their exhibition at Post-Museum in Singapore the flags had functioned as a score for a moveable vocal performance by Lewis. At Hazelhurst, traces of the readings, performances, live actions, audio compositions and dance interpretations which frequently form vital components of Lewis’ installations were fairly discreet. Yet this edited approach to performance documentation lent greater impact to the selected examples. The screening of Lewis’ blackly humorous public performance made for video, Euphemisms for the Riotous Suburbs (2007), presented audiences with an opportunity to reflect upon the events of the 2005 Cronulla riots. Two live collaborative performances in the gallery space were also programmed. On the closing day of the exhibition, an attentive crowd gathered in the gallery to watch movement artist Alan Schacher interpret Lewis’s reading of Directions, an epigrammatic poem by the anarchist philosopher poet of the 60s Sydney PUSH movement, Harry Hooton. As he interacted with and animated the objects in the space Schacher brought their agitprop dimensions to life and gave tangible expression to Hooton’s humanistic pronouncements.

Other installed works showcased the sophistication of Lewis’ uniquely devised method of transcription drawing. Among the highlights were the Water Drawings (1997), initially created as accompaniments to Lewis’ renowned modular wooden beam installation, RAFT (1995), which was absent from the survey, perhaps for practical reasons given its imposing scale. The Water Drawings, however, poetically developed its thought lines in their rendering of an Aboriginal rain song cycle, transcribed from sources in German, English and Arrente, across three horizontal scroll-like canvases and deploying modest oil crayons to work up extraordinarily layered palimpsests. Following an accretive logic, there was a visceral beauty in the textured surfaces of the “language paintings,” while their varying degrees of legibility provoked meditation upon the collisions and confusions of knowledge which occur in acts of translation.

Stepping outside into the gardens, the increasingly civic dimension of Lewis’s recent practice was apparent in the new and reprised installation pieces and audio poem. The suburban tranquility of Hazelhurst changed the context for a piece like Banalities for the Perfect House (2007), which previously presented a confronting force when installed on a busy street in Redfern. Here, the striking black-and-white wall of aphoristic phrases worked more subtly to question the ideology of suburbia. The protean nature of Lewis’ engagement with the notion of home was likewise observable in the new Star Shelters (2012) scattered across the lawns. This series of nomadic wooden shelters evolved from a series of prismatic graphite drawings that Lewis made in response to ideas of Aboriginal astronomy during a prolonged stay in a Darwin hospital. Having cut and folded the drawings like origami and then scaled them up into three-dimensional forms, the shelters blended a functional purpose with an angular and asymmetrical sculptural aesthetic, inflecting a high modernist formalism with local geographical and cultural touchstones.

Early next year, Macquarie University Gallery will host the second part of Lewis’ survey and I imagine it will be less a repeat than a reconfiguration involving a process of addition and subtraction in response to the site. At Hazelhurst, the many facets of this unique community venue were thoughtfully incorporated to enact a journey across a significant and conceptually rigorous practice which has only grown richer, more nuanced and exploratory with the progress of time.

Ruark Lewis Survey 1982-2012, Part 1, curator Dr James Paull, Hazelhurst Regional Arts Gallery, 29 Sept-Nov 11; Part 2, Macquarie University Art Gallery, Feb 6-March 13, 2013; http://www.mq.edu.au/about/events/view/ruark-lewissurvey-part-ii/

See also Ella Mudie’s interview with Lewis in RT111

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 47

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012