1.Tell us a bit about yourself, both as a person and as an artist. Do you remember the moment you realized you would pursue a life making art?
I currently live in a rural part of East Sussex close to the South Coast. It is, for the most part, a pretty ordinary part of the world, though only a short distance from picture-postcard villages beneath the South Downs and the urban sprawl along the coastline.
Prior to Sussex I was in London for many years. I began, as a student, right in the middle and slowly worked my way outwards towards the more affordable edges. I spent the 90s in a revolting flat in Brixton with my brother Edmund (also a painter) which proved to be a remarkably prolific period.
And prior to London I lived, and was born, in East Yorkshire – a place then seldom visited. Much of it remains, to me, rather strange and isolated. I remember someone telling me it had the country’s highest concentration of witches, a fact I can’t confirm.
My Dad took me drawing from an early age. We’d go down to the edge of the River Humber where I’d search for an object to focus on in an otherwise almost entirely flat expanse of mud and sky. Though I enjoyed drawing I was really more interested in finding things – insects, skulls, fossils. I was always obsessed with detail and with identifying and distinguishing one thing from another.
My first years at art school were a struggle. I found London fascinating but saw college as just an extension of school. I rarely turned up and my work went nowhere. Then, in 1991 – somewhat out of the blue – I was invited by a New York art dealer (Guillaume Gallozzi) to show in NYC. I think that’s when I first saw a future in art as a reality. It did, if nothing else, give me far greater confidence in my work, and when I returned to London I saw the city in a new light.
2.Your current body of work is a haunting, almost phantasmagoric juxtaposition of everyday objects seen anew, through an uncanny and unexpected perspective. Can you talk about the inspiration behind the series, and where you see it going?
In Brixton I began working at night in artificial light and kept almost exclusively nocturnal hours. The building – despite being surrounded 24/7 by the noise and bustle of the city – seemed strangely calm and still. The physical components of my surroundings – walls, doors, floorboards and window frames – became integral to my subject matter and the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in my work. I began looking for objects that related, however indistinctly, to figures, in order to populate the empty rooms I was working in. I began working with mannequins and dolls and, ultimately, children’s toys.
In New York I’d seen work by Balthus and de Chirico which further convinced me to pursue work laden with tension and suspense. I started work on a drawing of a street scene for which I constructed wooden models and related objects (street lamps, swings, a slide) and a drawing of an eerily lit Brixton Academy. I still keep, and use, a number of these items today and I am continually searching for, and constructing, new objects for my work. I don’t seek deliberately strange subject matter but things can subsequently appear strange when taken out of their usual context and given new surroundings: an unfamiliar world dictated to a great extent by memory and atmosphere.
I also still work, to this day, in a smallish room in artificial light. I’ve never had a proper studio – I prefer to work in a space that has been lived in rather than painted in and subsequently bears the accidental marks, the stains and scars, of its past. And I can’t work in natural light – I like the jaundiced light of the room at night – and I cover all windows, cracks and openings. The Sun will not intrude.
3.A career as a painter is rarely a straight-forward or easy path. Were there ever moments you wanted to give up, and what got you through that?
I think you need to be able to justify what you are doing and know that it has real purpose. As I said before, I struggled with my work during, and immediately after, art school because I was unsure as to the direction it needed to take. Ultimately, I still didn’t know what I wanted to say – I needed to grow up a bit.
But I don’t think then, or since, I genuinely considered giving up painting. I know the sense of frustration and sheer exhaustion when you are invested in a failing project can seem utterly overwhelming. But that can also change in an instant if you are able to resolve a particular problem or see a way through to a possible solution.
I’d like to believe that if you are good enough you will somehow, in the end, rise to the top. But, that’s not, as we all know, how it works. I come across artists regularly whose work I think remarkable but who are entirely unrecognized and, no doubt, always shall be, and I can’t help feel a sense of irritation when I see mediocrity rewarded. I see a lot of work that is meticulous and clearly demonstrates enormous technical competence but which ultimately teaches me nothing. It’s not enough simply to know how to draw – you need to have something to say and a clearly defined vision. I’m not interested in traditional, straight life drawing or bland representation of the figure or objects within a still life. I want to see work that is different, that makes me sit up and think. Art should always attempt to challenge, to provoke, to ask questions and to offer something new. And it must communicate something to the viewer that in some way, however small, changes the way they see the world.
4.Are you a full-time painter, or do you have a day job? If the latter, how do you balance the two, and find time to make your art?
I’m currently painting full time and have done so for a number of years. But I never take my situation for granted – it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from art, just as it is from music or writing or any other creative pursuit. In London I worked a Friday night shift in a cinema for 10 years. Even if I was making good money from my painting I still turned up most weekends – it forced me to escape the confines of my studio. I’ve also worked in bars, I’ve voiced radio commercials and I’ve been a window cleaner – I’ll do whatever is required in order to continue painting. But I’ve never worked in a position concerned or connected in any way with art. I’m not sure if that’s of my own choosing or because I’ve never been asked.
I occasionally take on commissions although I have no desire to become, for instance, a full time portrait painter. But I’ve dipped in and out of art competitions and awards in the past. They are out there and, so long as you are thick skinned and reasonably phlegmatic, they can, if you are good enough, provide rewards and exposure. The BP Portrait Award is a particularly good event and I’ve benefitted greatly through having shown there – gaining commissions, making sales and meeting other painters. But, as I said, you need to be thick-skinned. Though I’ve shown there a number of times I’ve also been rejected (with complete justification). Prizes in these competitions can be contentious, as rightly they should be, but the financial rewards, particularly in the bigger competitions, can start or save careers.
5.If you could have a night on the town with your favorite artist (either past or present), who would it be? Where would you take them, and what kind of questions would you ask?
That’s a very good question. I suppose, having lived and worked in London for much of my life and having once, though no longer, had an admirable knowledge of the capital’s abundant nightlife, I instinctively associate a night out with the names of those artists most famously linked to London’s drinking culture. Francis Bacon (along with contemporaries such as Lucien Freud and Michael Andrews) would seem the obvious choice. Bacon’s name is inextricably linked with the murky nightlife of Soho and anecdotes about his debauchery are well documented. But, although he was undoubtedly one of my favourite painters, I’ve never been particularly interested in the mythology behind Bacon’s drinking exploits. Besides, he could be difficult company and had a rather sinister dark side – a desire to experience real and genuine depravity. Sadly I feel my days of champagne fuelled, sado-masochistic sex parties are now largely behind me.
I’d certainly have a host of questions to put to Giorgio de Chirico but he was increasingly prone to bragging and self-delusion and I’m not sure where a night out with Balthus would end up. Probably prison.
Hopefully, though, I’d have no trouble keeping pace with the 80 year old Antonio Lopez Garcia. Over the years I have found myself returning to his work time and again. It is, to me, extraordinary. As a child Lopez Garcia had not been expected to pursue art, but he was sent to Madrid to study for art school at the age of just 13. I’d like to ask him about that – about how he saw the world as a kid and how his work developed as he grew. And I’d like to ask, in particular, about a painting called ‘Carmencita Playing’ which depicts a child playing with toys and items of doll’s furniture. I’d like to know how he selected those objects – chairs, tables, a bed – and if he or the child had arranged them.
I’ve heard the great man isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs these days which is fine because neither, quite frankly, am I. So, not wishing to keep him out too late, I’d walk him to a cab. Then I’d head off for a final drink. And try to avoid Francis Bacon.
Artist’s website: Lewis Chamberlain