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Brian Lewis - Today The Struggle, According To McGee, York, June 16 to July 9
BRIAN Lewis is not an artist to sit on the fence. Instead, the Pontefract polymath “squatted” the opening of the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield last year and is now responding to Britain’s political and social woes by setting himself the challenge of creating 1,000 drawings in a year in a protest statement he is calling The Hokusai Project.
To introduce this new phase of his life in his mid-70s, Brian is taking over the contemporary white cube otherwise known as the According To McGee gallery in York from tomorrow for a solo show.
But let’s recall his Hepworth squat first. “I thought Barbara Hepworth was a shallow artist with good connections. You learn very little from her and little of the local artists from looking at her work,” says the historian, poet, art critic, artist, publisher, art collector, political activist and founder of arts collectives.
“Everyone phoned me that day and asked, ‘What are you doing?’, and I said, ‘I’m fed up with this £3.5 million project; I’ll do an exhibition and festival for £350’. So we did, in Castleford; we wrote a play, two musical pieces, and we did an exhibition to show that if you look at your own locality you will find quality.”
His artwork is as bold as the opinions of this Birmingham-born Renaissance man, who, having started his working life as a factory worker, needed to self-educate himself.
In the early 1980s, in collaboration with other artists, writers and performers, he painted a number of sequences of 50 paintings, wrote and published books, designed postcards and wrote plays, and he still calls the 1980s, and particularly the year-long Miners’ Strike, his “heroic” period.
However, his love of paint and black ink became marginalised, replaced by other creative and academic pursuits, until the emergence of the Coalition government changed all that, and the Hokusai Project was born.
The ubiquitous Young British Artist figure of Tracey Emin had his hackles rising too. “If you can appoint someone whose skill in drawing is as slight as Tracey Emin’s as the Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools…,” he says, with both mischief and despair in his eyes.
“I’d been out of drawing so long, I said my response would be to re-learn to draw, so the idea behind the 1,000 drawings was that it was a target and a re-teaching of the major skill that any wants: the ability to observe and extend their imagination through the art of drawing.
“I wished to see if I could draw from observation and I wanted to be in touch with the subjects that were concerning our society – and I saw that in two ways: I wished to understand the state of art and I wished to understand the state of the state.”
The Hokusai Project drawings have come thick and fast. “Hokusai was the Michelangelo of Japan, and at the age of 74, in about 1836, he declared that everything he’d done before 50 was only questionably good,” says Brian. “He continued to work until he died at 88 and his later works were his greatest. His best known, The Great Wave, was done when he was 75.
“I read this when I was 74, a week before I turned 75, and I thought that if our art world amounted to Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and [Antony] Gormley, I could do better drawings than Tracey.”
He has done 548 drawings so far, he says. No, strike that, he has done rather more. “Actually, I’m well ahead of schedule, In the Hokusai Project tower [now assembled from sliding drawers in a corner of the McGee gallery], I think there are more than 800. Every night I have to do three drawings and some nights I do six, and I’m now editing the best.”
Brian remains passionate in his belief that creating art is a “moral rather than an aesthetic activity”. “Where is the protest in art today?” he asks, in despair once more. “The students are un-politicised because gradually lecturers have become scared, but I think they’re only interested in the practice of art, not the impact and threat of art. They’re not getting stuck in.”
Brian, by comparison, is getting stuck in, not least into Rebekah Brooks, the subject of a series of drawings in reaction to the Leveson Inquiry.
“There are also some pieces called The Ship Of Fools because we are all on a ship of fools,” warns Brian.
“I’ve always been political, but I’ve also always dressed like a city toff because there’s no point in dressing like an anarchist, as everyone then knows where you’re coming from!
“Of course our political times won’t have changed after 1,000 drawings, but this is a period of struggle in political times that need a response.”
• BRIAN Lewis’s solo show, Today The Struggle, runs at According To McGee, York, from tomorrow until July 9. At tomorrow’s private view, the artist will give an introduction at 12 noon.
• The Hokusai Project exhibition will open at Dean Clough, Halifax, in the first week of September.