It's been almost a decade since San Antonio-born, Brooklyn-based artist Zane Lewis was crowned as one of the '23 Year-Old Masters' alongside a select group of ascendant art world stars. At the time, Lewis was a Pop prankster showing glowing vials of pink lemonade, Warholian paint-by-number templates, and poured and cut wall paintings of controversial figures like Charles Manson, Pope Benedict XVI, Brangelina and President Obama, each crying or bleeding paint from their faces onto gallery floors in a cheeky nod to weeping statues. Slowly distancing himself from image, he began putting mirrors in front of his stars and then abandoned them altogether for a much-beloved series of abstract 'Shatter Paintings' made by molecularly fusing glass shards to glass panels. In the span of five years he was the youngest artist ever shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia — and featured as a 'groundbreaker' artist by the Whitney Museum of American Art — and then suddenly he stepped away from it all, totally escaping the culture of the art world to a point where one journalist even reported he was dead.
'I sort of had to kill off the artist I used to be,' says Lewis, who reemerged from his Bushwick studio last year with three new series of abstract paintings — shown at the Hole in New York and Paris' Galerie Éric Hussenot —that capture the feeling of Rothko's color fields, James Turrell's Skyspaces and Dan Flavin's neon installations filtered through the tip of a spray paint can. 'I'm trying to make the purest work I can so it has to come completely from the edge, I'm just a vessel or conduit producing all that energy.'
The new works are broken down into Lewis's X (crude black marks over glowing voids of color that evoke the gang graffiti he grew up with in San Antonio), Noise (darker fields of technicolored spray that merge into one another to form a pulsing piece of static) and Atmosphere paintings (celestial light flooded planes that shift perspective and appear to move as you walk toward and around them).
'I don't sip tea and hang out and play with my phone, it's the exact opposite: I paint in a very direct way it's almost like a boxing match, there's no other distractions in the room, the entire space is a big spray booth and it's this battle between me and the canvas,' says Lewis, who says he gets physically exhausted by the process. This spring, he showed the more operatic atmosphere paintings in Paris and is now going punk rock with 'Badlandz', his solo debut at the Hole opening this week. 'The badlands are typically a place where vegetation doesn't grow, like a desert or mountain, but these very harsh environments can also be extremely zen so there's this amazing duality between those landscapes and I wanted to investigate that idea with this show.'
In addition to Noise paintings of various colour schemes and a 'glowing diagonal dissection' of neon slashing across a black canvas — 'The X painting in its purest form' — Lewis turned the gallery's floor into a massive black and white noise canvas that dialogues with the works in the room.
'Perceptually you don't know what the positive or negative is. Is the positive the black because it was black paint applied or does the white show through as the positive?' Lewis ponders, calling the effect 'psychedelic minimalism'. He hopes his sculptural works create a sense of danger and mystery while referencing everything from pointillism and phenomenology to California's Light and Space movement.
If anything, they're reaching toward that mission statement laid out by Rothko, who once said, 'I’m not an abstract artist, I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions.'