Saturday, February 8, 2014

Michael Lewis ‘Striking Oil’ by Philip Willey

Michael Lewis grew up fatherless in Las Vegas. His mother worked in a theme park candy store. It made for an unreal childhood populated by Wild West archetypes and popular superheroes….a mythology he has spent his life dealing with through paint. In his show ‘Striking Oil’ (he loves puns and double meanings) Lewis presents a selection of paintings, old and new, which can best be seen as a mini-retrospective.

He came to Canada to avoid the draft, lived in various parts of B.C. before settling eventually in Victoria where a lot of his life was spent working at the Cool Aid Shelter, on the night shift, exposed to a side of life most of us prefer not to deal with. Back in the 1980s he was painting in his spare time, mostly scenes from the mean streets of downtown Victoria inspired by his work at the shelter. Feeling something of a conflict between sympathy and opportunism his paintings slowly became more autobiographical. He began to make paintings based on dreams, movies, and comic book heroes wrestling with their personal demons. They suggested condensed comic strips where viewers are free to supply their own myths and narrative.

He’s retired now. Has anything changed? Well he has more time to paint and he no longer has to listen to hard luck stories. He has more time to reflect on his own memories and more time to think about the future. Things like the state of the world, the way the media presents it and of course death. That’s the irony of retirement; we have more time but we have less of it too. There is no escape from Big D. Not that there’s anything morbid or sinister about Lewis’ work. He still uses comic book heroes and characters from the funny pages like Dagwood and Dick Tracey. They are facets of an inner complexity. So are Popeye and his friends being lured onto the rocks by the extremely nasty Sea Witch. Cartoons yes, but with a serious side. Even superheroes are not immune to moral contradictions. Humour is the best antidote.

Canada has changed a lot too in the last 40 years. We’ve become more internationally involved. There are more of us. There‘s more pressure. The government has made a big bet on bitumen and pipelines. People are anxious about the future.

The show at Dales is a cross section of Lewis’ interests and preoccupations. There are the same social concerns, unfairness, homelessness, sympathy for the underdog etc. The iconography is still there but he would seem to have come to terms with his inner turbulence…perhaps some childhood dilemmas have been resolved. He may even have found a tranquil harbour. He also has a keen eye for modern manners and likes to make wry comments. A sexy girl wears a ‘Fuck Off’ T-shirt. An elderly passerby is bemused by the mixed message. The subject matter is wide-ranging. There are nude roller skating Dryads, small boys taking pictures of girls in swimsuits, a mother nursing her child in an air raid. Gaza, Lebanon, Syria isn’t specified. It’s your basic holy land disaster.

One painting in particular suggests a more domestic setting. The drama and romance of urban chicken keeping. It’s a made up of fragmented planes based on a house the artist lived in. The house has been demolished but the chicken house remains. A charming little architectural monument. It’s a symbol, maybe the Mike Lewis version of the lone arbutus overlooking the Pacific.

Dales Gallery
Feb. 6 to 23, 2014

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