A crude, but charmingly drawn face looks down at its audience, its smile lopsided. Created out of lengths of neon tubing, this harsh fluorescent lighting – the ultimate symbol of the man-made – contrasts dynamically with the way that the installation maintains the gestural qualities of the original drawing from which it was created. Despite its industrial materiality, the installation remains indicative of the artist’s hand.
Stylized, naïve drawings of faces, wrought from neon lights, like that of his installation for 2015’s Underbelly Arts Festival, have become a signature for Sydney-based artist Lewis Doherty, who exhibited at Hatched: PICA’s National Graduate Show, whilst studying at UNSW Art & Design and has gone on to show at Constance ARI, Firstdraft’s 2016 auction and Carriagework’s FBI SMACs festival since graduating. Often working site- specifically, Doherty explores the rift between the ‘the illegitimate and the legitimate, the tiny and the monumental and the frivolous and the commercially contingent’ to investigate the affect mass media and digital culture have on society.
Scaling down for his exhibition at Nicholas Projects, Rupjmaize, Doherty combines video, drawing, and light installations to explore social media and digital culture, blurring the realms between private and public. “I hope this looks good online” reads the glowing crimson text installed along the gallery wall: in Rupjmaize, Doherty draws our attention to the cracks in the façades of our heavily curated online presences. In this exhibition, Doherty combines the varied elements of his practice in order to create an unusual code; creating for himself a new self-reflexive language consisting of dilapidated emoticons, found text and eerie footage of heaving crowds, perhaps taken from security cameras.
Artist and writer Katie Paine talks to Doherty about Instagram, what it was like creating his large installation for Underbelly Arts, and the way that drawing unifies his practice.
KP – Can you tell me a little about what your practice began like?
LD – When I was young I would draw Velociraptors semi-religiously. I would also draw plans for machines and inventions with impossibly intricate conveyor belt systems. My real artistic awakening however, came in the form of my own parent’s scribbles and drawings that would cover various scrap papers and note pads throughout the house, which I would covet and try and replicate. In some ways I am still trying to replicate those drawings in my work today and my early practice as a painter was certainly related to them. At art school I became far more interested in sculpture and installation as it seemed like a medium in which my ideas were just as important as my fine motor skills and it gave me a chance to build some of the machines I had designed as a child. My early sculptural practice began with a real focus on materials and experimentations with figuration and mechanical forms and a use of neon kind of blended all of those concerns into one.
KP – What role does drawing play in your work?
LD – I find drawing to be such a pure and unique form of self-expression that I try and do it often and make it an important part of my practice. Most crucially it forms the basis of all the illustrative neon work I do, with each work being traced from scale drawings. I will often do hundreds of different drafts before I get a drawing I like, which seems ridiculous given the simple nature of the drawings but it’s all about finding a balance. In the case of the giant neon installations the drawings become ridiculously large (the largest was 14m x 10m) and have to be done on site, which is particularly hard to do with just a regular lead pencil and roll after roll of paper. Often it is a struggle to keep these drawings from blowing away.
KP – Can you talk about the role social media plays in your practice?
LD – People seem to either be very pro or very against social media in terms of its relation to art and I’d say I sit somewhere in the middle. I suppose I find the sudden ubiquity of social media and all its tropes to be quite odd and I can appreciate that like it or not it has made a large impact on the contemporary art world. I certainly use it as a tool to explore and interact with other people’s practices overseas and to display my own work. In relation to my own practice I suppose It interests me how people conduct themselves both online and in reality, particularly when their actions in reality are undertaken to produce something that is purely for online consumption. I’d say some of my work is geared towards investigating or provoking those kind of actions.
KP – Can you talk about the process of working with large scale installations?
LD – I’m not intellectually daunted by working to a large scale and in fact I’m potentially more comfortable considering works in gigantic spaces to smaller, more practical ones. Logistically it takes a lot more care and preparation as it’s not really something you can just improvise on the day and I suppose that’s an aspect of it I enjoy. I enjoy the role of project manager almost as much as that of an artist. I was incredibly fortunate to be given the opportunity very early on while I was still studying to make and exhibit work in large spaces for larger audiences. I participated in the 2013 Underbelly Arts festival on Cockatoo Island in Sydney when I was still in second year and so having two weeks of installation within the islands gigantic warehouses really informed my practice and allowed me to change what started off as a single, small mechanical sculpture into a gigantic and immersive installation. In this way I grew far more comfortable working at a large scale for the rest of my time at university.
KP – The Nicholas Projects gallery space is small and intimate, how does this change the way your work is received?
LD – Hopefully it doesn’t change things too much. I make work with a gallery context in mind and in this particular body of work the scale is relatively manageable and is largely suited to the Nicholas Projects space. In the video works I have done for the show I have kind of always kept scale in mind so although the works themselves are not large the scale referenced by them and contained within them is much, much larger. Hopefully people will be able to appreciate the works on the scale they are but also see them as something that potentially could be much larger.
KP – Can you tell me what it was like watching people interact with your 2015 Underbelly Arts work?
LD – From what I saw people seemed to enjoy the work and many people would pose in front of it which was funny. It was installed at a festival and so the atmosphere there was very fun and inclusive and it was good to see people enjoying it along those lines. It featured in a lot of photos which was nice as I didn’t really have a problem with documenting the work. I suppose at the end of the day it was like watching people interact with anything you have created, it made me anxious.
KP – Currently, what kind of things are you researching, reading and watching?
LD – I read way too many things at once and never really get to finish any of them but currently I am enjoying a biography of Marcel Duchamp by Calvin Tomkins and a book on medieval Japanese architecture. I am researching the best way to make a good Chawan [an Asian ceramic bowl used for making and drinking tea]. I am watching (or re-watching) Civilization: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark which is so out-dated and at times incredibly pejorative but still has a great charm and is an intriguing look at one particular route through the western artistic canon. I am also re-watching a selection of my favourite John Cassavetes’ films.
You can find Lewis at on Instagram at @lewisstepsandrew. His exhibition at Nicholas Projects runs until Saturday the 1st of October.