Artist Spotlight Joan Lewis: A Human Art

Artist Spotlight  Joan Lewis: A Human Art

By Olivia Nicholls MA (Cantab), MSc Art History (Edin)

Joan Lewis’s art centres around what it is to be human. She was profoundly interested in human relationships, and themes of mental and physical connection – and isolation – are at play throughout her work. Lewis was a foundation student at the City Literary Institute, London from 1989 to 1990, and went on to develop her style, obtaining a Certificate in Fine Art at St Albans in 1993, after which she exhibited widely. The large body of work we have exemplifies her output in two media: print and oil. It is revealing to contrast the two, and see how she used the specificities of each medium to explore human themes.

By their very nature, serial print works have an experimental quality, and it seems highly appropriate that Lewis used the medium to interrogate an idea: essays on form or feeling. A series of works such as ‘Back View’ show the artist repeating a motif in varying colours and shifting technique:


Contemporary Monotype, back view

Contemporary Etching, Blue back View

Contemporary Monotype, Back view, multi-colour

We can see that ‘Back View’ is an energetic study of the female anatomy – with its suggestion of ribs – and of the dynamism of the body, its fluidity of line. But it is also perhaps something more. I am reminded of the rear perspective favoured by Edgar Degas in drawings such as ‘Woman Combing her Hair’:


Woman Combing Her Hair Edgar Degas (French, Paris 1834–1917 Paris)


Whilst in Degas’s rear view depictions of women in domestic poses (combing hair, bathing) the viewer becomes voyeur (and arguably, is prompted to recognise his/her position as such), in Lewis’s studies it is more as if the viewer invited to share in an intimate, normally secondary, view – to pay attention to what is normally hidden. Lewis invites us to engage with a figure turned away from us, and in doing so raises questions of relationship and connection. These themes are explored in other print works such as ‘Conversation’ – titled by the artist – which more explicitly shows the interaction of two figures. The hazy darkness of the etching technique creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and potential discordance, which resonates with the picture’s subject. 


Contemporary Etching, Conversation

In other works, such as ‘Waiting for the Train’ Lewis juxtaposes people more as a formal exercise, the figures affording demarcation to an otherwise featureless yellow background. She takes this formal experimentation further in a print where the figures are wholly in negative. At the same time, however, the composition communicates something about the ultimate connectedness between a group of people who are seemingly disparate. 


Contemporary Monotype, Waiting for the Train

Contemporary Monotype, Figures in Negative

In common with her print work, Joan Lewis’s oils on canvas likewise focus on human figures, exploring the emotional and physical relationships between individuals, and how – in presenting these explicitly on canvas – a connection is in turn set up with the viewer. The oils engage with ideas of both isolation and sociality, as seen in these examples:


Contemporary Oil, Two Figures

Contemporary Oil, Three Figures in a Garden

Daubing paint on canvas is a much more direct process than printmaking, and Lewis utilises the medium’s palpable human energy. Her paintings are stylised – profiles and proportions are crude, eyes are disconcerting black holes – and yet tender: mother cradles child, faces crowd the canvas cheek-to-cheek. The colours are considered and expressive, a vivid and assertive palate of blues, greens, purples and oranges, injected with defining sweeps of black. I am struck by the figures being at once anonymous and familiar, standing for and communicating something universal.


Contemporary Oil, Two Figures


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