Since opening their Cologne, Germany space in 2013, founding partners Sunhee Choi and Jari Lager have introduced western audiences to a host of key contemporary artists coming out of Korea. It is with great excitement that they offer up Lewis’ remarkable work to their Korean audience, the first of a diverse range of established and emerging western talents that the gallery will be introducing to Asia.
Lewis’ figurative, mural-scale works are explicitly influenced by the symbolic conventions and compositional drama of Medieval and Renaissance painting, wherein the plane is dominated by the dynamic intertwining of bodies and punctuated by emblematic tokens of sin, virtue and status.
This is combined with the artist’s personal encounters and acute eye for the everyday human dramas that play out in the urban environments he frequents, and filtered through a distinct authorial subject position as a white, gay male of working-class upbringing possessing the satirical, good-natured-but-brutal sense of humour that characterizes much British creative output. The result is a visual language equal parts Martin Parr meets Chris Morris, Rembrandt-cum-Basquiat; plausibly grotesque, amplified to absurdity, narrative-laden and energetically complex.
The work from which the exhibition takes its name - Hope Street – for example, takes its schema from Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, wherein the central figure of Venus is traded for an attractive young textiles teacher under whom the artist studied and witnessed break down before her class of insensitive teenage boys, who figuratively continue to molest her as she turns away from love and lust. The upper corner placement of Time and Fraud/Oblivion in Bronzino’s piece are replaced by irreverent depictions of the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals that rise at opposing ends of Hope Street in Liverpool, the latter of which was designed by the same architect responsible for Lewis’ hometown of Harlow. Liver birds - mythical symbols of protection in Liverpool – take the place of classical doves, and shirk their guardian posts in favour of smoking a joint in the corner.
Hope Street thus exemplifies many the concerns that inform Lewis’ practice: the borrowing of archetypical narrative to frame the personal, the contemporary prevalence of hedonistic indulgence over religious restraint, the homosexual gaze in representing masculinity and the female nude, and more. Elsewhere his works trade in dichotomies, exploring the corruption of adulthood against the innocence of children and animals, working-class lifestyles amongst privileged settings, tradition versus modernity and the theatrical in the quotidian. Given these fairly universal concerns paired with the artist’s British sensibility and unique visual language, Choi and Lager is confident that Dale Lewis will be a rich, surprising addition to the Korean art scene.