Peter Lewis’ internationally recognised collage art presents a dizzying array of recycled imagery. The Dunedin artist’s recent works are on show this weekend. By Gavin Bertram.
Peter Lewis says “The world is saturated with pictures on paper; there’s so much stuff you can recycle.”
The Dunedin collage artist specialises in reordering images culled from old publications into new and wonderous scenes. These often humourous, occasionally mystical works drip with a child-like naivety tempered by an adult sense of nostalgia and perhaps melancholia.
“For a while the stuff I was doing was quite political,” Lewis reflects. “But it’s become more whimsical and fantastical and surreal in the sense of being quite dreamlike. In the world of dreams things make sense but not in the usual way.”
The Tauranga-raised artist, who also makes electronic music under the Sharkweek moniker, first became interested in collage art through the album artwork of punk band the Dead Kennedys.
The San Francisco act included booklets featuring collage art from artist Winston Smith, who leaned heavily on outrageous tabloid headlines. “I started off copying the text cutouts, but I soon got bored with that,” Lewis says.
“You don’t get those kinds of weird headlines growing up in suburban Tauranga – there was no good source material.”
He soon began scouring secondhand shops for more unique material to draw from, and a found a ready supply of 1950s and 1960s children’s books. The kind of imagery found in these now dominates Lewis’ collage work, and he says he has a huge stock salvaged from the annual Regent Book Sales to draw from.
Individual images are painstakingly sliced from the page with a scalpel, and gradually layered together using acrylic glue to create entirely new contexts.
While some of his source material is printed on heavy paper, it’s often a delicate process. “You can stick things down once, maybe twice, but after that it either stays there or comes off in pieces,” Lewis relates. “I don’t consider myself a risk-taking person, but I like the idea of getting it right once. It’s almost like a performance in that sense.”
The artist says that the themes of the collage works generally emerge organically as he works on them. This means he’s not overly committed to a solid idea of how they should end up. It’s an approach perhaps born from spending many futile hours searching for exactly the right image. “That’s not creative, it’s just mundane,” Lewis says. “By not being rigid I open it up to going in new directions and the whole piece emerges.”
The artist admits that the main satisfaction is derived from the moments he amuses himself with the juxtaposition of images.
But ultimately, Lewis considers, collage art gives him the opportunity to literally wear his influences on his sleeve.
The artist’s most recent works, many created for an exhibition in Wellington in February, will be on show at None Gallery this weekend.