Geoff Jaeger | 40 years of art by Christopher Lewis
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40 years of art by Christopher Lewis

Christopher Lewis is a painter who lives in Sydney. We were introduced socially in 2017 and both visited Palm Springs, California the same year – only a few weeks apart. His most recent series is inspired by this visit.

Palm Springs No 6
Christopher Lewis, 2017
Gouache on paper
43 x 33 cms

With his works completed in meticulous detail, Christopher was likewise generous on the detail when answering my questions. 

Christopher Lewis will be curating GkJE 1 until 30 April, 2018.

Christopher Lewis

How old were you when you first picked up a paint brush?

I was about nine years old. I impressed my primary school art teacher with a copy of an iconic Albert Namatjira painting.

It was hanging on one of the classroom walls, alongside the usual religious paraphernalia common on the walls of Catholic boys schools in the 1960s.

When did you realise painting would be your life’s work?

I was 17, in year 12. My less-than-brilliant maths marks had excluded me from my first choice of being an architect. I very quickly focused my ambition on becoming a full-time artist.

There was no other vocation which held any interest for me, even though both my parents and I knew I’d chosen a financially precarious path in life!

The Pond, Central Park
Christopher Lewis, 2016
Oil on canvas
76 x 61 cms

Can you ‘paint’ a brief history in time of the artist Chris Lewis?

The maternal side of my family has a rich history of people with artistic pursuits. I’m a descendant of Cornish portrait painter John Opie (1761 – 1807) whose work and character were most recently depicted in the BBC series Poldark.

Both my grandmother and mother were painters. My mother, Meredith Rooney, was a finalist in the Blake Prize for religious art in the early 1960s.

My parents set up private art lessons for me while I was still at high school, where I endured a sport-focused, brutal education. I suffered through school with my best mate at the time, former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

I frequently sought shelter in the school library from the bullies. It would be me with my head in art books, Kevin with his head in books that had a lot more words!

Christopher Lewis (L);
Kevin Rudd (R), 1971.

At the end of 1974, I was released from 12 years’ hard labour in the Catholic Education system. I went on to enjoy three years of freedom and fine art studies at the College of Art in Brisbane before moving permanently to Sydney in November 1977.

Do you have a preferred subject you like to paint?

I can say in all honesty I have no particular preferred subject. So many subjects interest me. Urban landscapes, figures in landscapes – most recently, pictorial diaries of my travels, as well as botanical still lives.

Take me through your art practice and how a painting comes to life?

My paintings commence as an inspired thought. They may then progress to a thumbnail sketch. I’m a keen observer of light and atmosphere and often take a series of photographs when I’m travelling.

I work in a number of ways, often in plein air, where I take my materials directly into the field. That means producing work in a limited number of hours. It’s a race against the light.

Other times, I’ll work on a painting in the studio for a number weeks – even months – revising and examining the work until I feel it’s complete.

Banksias with Shadows
Christopher Lewis, 2017
Oil on canvas
101 x 75 cms

Tell me about your first exhibition?

In 1978, within six months of graduating from the art college and moving to Sydney, I was invited to exhibit in a group show called Still life by the prestigious Robin Gibson Gallery.

I found my work hanging alongside the paintings of artists like Brett Whiteley and fellow Archibald Prize winners, Tim Storrier and Brian Westwood. Robin went on to represent me for 30 years.

Have you been represented by any other galleries?

I was represented by Esta Robinson in New York in the mid 1980s.

Which artists do you admire most and why?

I admire the magical realist and surrealist artists Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dali for the dreamlike atmospheres they create in their paintings, and the strong use of dark shadows in their work.

I’m inspired by American painters Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and my all-time favourite, Georgia O’Keeffe. I reference her depiction of clouds in my recent Palm Springs series.

I also love Van Gogh, Hockney and the Australian painter Jeffery Smart – to whom my work is most often compared – interesting, since we are both Adelaide born.

What’s it like to be an artist in 2018, with the online art world and technology in the mix?

Social Media has turned the art world on its head. Since leaving Robin Gibson and representing myself, Instagram is now my primary sales and marketing channel.

I’m also exhibiting in bricks and mortar venues, invited by the curators of The Other Art Fair, to exhibit my latest work in Sydney this month.

Are there any particular works you’ve done that stand out for you?

I’ve created a rather large body of work over the last 40 years. I’m currently most excited about the desert landscape of the Palm Springs series. That, and my first series of snow paintings after flying over The Otago Mountains on New Zealand’s South Island.

Otago Mountains No 1
Christopher Lewis, 2017
Gouache on paper
43 x 33 cms

Have you always survived on your art as a means of income?

Not always. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, yes. That was after a number of successful solo exhibitions with Robin Gibson. Then, the artist warehouse spaces around the inner city were turned into apartments, the area was gentrified.

I was forced to supplement my art income by working in a number of fields: advertising, house cleaning and a gardener. Later, with my partner, I built a successful wholesale homewares business for which I designed the product.

And now?

For the last two years, I’ve once again been in the fortunate position of working as a full-time artist. This is largely due to social media and subsequent sales from all over the world, especially in France, Canada and the U.S.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just completed a still life of Australian botanicals. This painting has become an Instagram favourite.

Where would you like to have your next solo exhibition?

In Sydney, 2019.

Interview by Geoffrey Jaeger for GkJE.

Feature Image:

Window, Tribeca
Christopher Lewis, 2017
Oil on canvas
61 x 51 cms