Karmarama – The Work of Owen Lewis

Ooo Err! The latest issue of Australian Art Collector magazine features a double-page spread on Owen Lewis – the rapscallion! Owen is a local favourite – awesome in every way and makes a fine Mojito. I wrote about him before he was famous…

Children posses the enviable ability to find all sorts of uses and meanings in the everyday objects and materials that surround them – a skill which many artists strive to emulate. One example is emerging Canberran artist Owen Lewis and fittingly, when not in the studio, he works as a craft activities coordinator for primary-school children.

 Originally from Bathurst, Lewis relocated to Canberra in 2004 to attend the Australian National University School of Art.  He undertook a major in sculpture, but quickly found himself dissatisfied with the industrial processes and grandeur of scale that came with the territory. Frustrated, Lewis forwent traditional sculptural methods and instead turned to paper, an unconventional sculptural medium but the perfect means by which he was able to articulate his vision in a diminutive yet complex style. He freely admits he does not consider himself a sculptor, but perhaps a spatially-minded artist.

 At his graduate exhibition in 2007 Lewis presented the work Transmitter a tiny hyper-colour landscape of transmission towers in various toppled states of deconstruction. The forms were created entirely from intricate three-dimensional paper cut outs, reducing the towering beacons of modern technology to fragile, gawky playthings.

 This graduate work secured him a highly sought-after studio residency with the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS), enabling him to continue honing his unique style and further investigate alternative materials.

 During this time, the plasticine, paper mache, organic matter and bright colours that are the mainstays of the school-age art experience began to creep their way from Lewis’ workplace into his artwork. The challenge of finding a new craft activity every day of the week for the children at his work meant that Lewis was constantly searching his surroundings with a creative and inventive eye. This childlike approach to viewing the world paired with the rediscovery of schoolyard materials became central to this new body of work, which went on to be shown in the exhibition Wonder Twin Powers Activate at Sydney’s Locksmith gallery and later that year in the annual group exhibition Blaze at CCAS.

Conceptually, Lewis is preoccupied with the relationship of materials to meaning. One example of this is the unlikely use of plasticine in the Totemic Shamanic series – small black plasticine forms are interjected by shots of bright colour and take on an unexpected preciousness, their obsidian sheen and textural, crystalline interiors belying their naïve construction.

 Other elements such as feathers and dried ginger are strangely talismanic, adding an aura of decay, while the use of pyramids and repetitious patterns are undeniably reminiscent of primitive motifs.

 This repetition and intricacy is at its most extreme in the wall based work You Remind me of the Babe in which Lewis has painstakingly cut into black and red card to create a sort of ceremonial mask. The concentric patterns lead inward towards two vacant eye holes and create an effect that is nothing less than dazzlingly hypnotic.

 The centrepiece is Karmarama – a life-sized figure, hunched on the gallery floor and draped by a tie-dyed shroud. Above the figure’s covered head hovers an impossibly complex construction of intertwined paper cut outs, a colourful, jagged cloud – the dizzying acid-flashback bursts of a new-age hippy shaman.

'You Remind Me of the Babe'
'You Remind Me of the Babe'

 Despite the ironic choice of materials and kitsch references to clichés of primitive culture there is little that is cute or amusing about this work. Though they are of small scale and simple construction Lewis’ objects are imbued with a strange power and undeniable symbolism. Exhibited together, these artworks seem not unlike a collection of museum artefacts – curious specimens from some imagined other-world, filled with the suggestion of a higher purpose.



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