SAVE THE DATE!!
ECHO LEW | Drawing in Space
Opening reception May 2nd 2015 6-10pm
Orange County Center for Contemporary Art
117 North Sycamore St
(Corner of 2nd and Sycamore)
Santa Ana, CA 92701 USA
ECHO LEW: LIGHT IN SPACE
By Peter Frank
Can one draw – truly draw – with the camera? If the definition of drawing depends entirely on the medium, then probably one can’t (even though drawing and photography have traditionally shared the rubric of “work on paper”). But if “drawing” refers to anything “drawing-like,” advancing the forms and principles associated with the production (rather than just the act) of drawing, then Echo Lew has been drawing with the camera for some time now, and his photography hews even closer to the visual and, yes, spiritual properties of drawing than it does to the visual and extra-visual properties of photography. In purely technical terms, Lew is indeed a photographer. Formally, however, he is a draughtsman.
The technique of open-shutter drawing (as Lew and others attest) was introduced exactly a century ago by Frank and Lillien Gilbreth – not photographers themselves, but American industrial psychologists studying the activity of workers in order to maximize their effectiveness. One of the devices they used to trace worker movement was the camera, leaving it on a long exposure time and recording thereby the paths described by the workers’ functions. These motion studies capitalized on little lights attached to the workers, which left skeletal trails in the pictures. The Gilbreths were trying to determine ways of making worker effort more efficient, but their images also made that effort more beautiful.
The Gilbreths’ experiments were exactly coincident with the much more deliberately aestheticized experiments of Futurist artists in Italy. The Futurists were interested not in efficiency so much as in the allure of dynamic motion itself, with its provocative implications of radical social change and its projection of artistic invention into a fully mechanized world. Like the Gilbreths, Futurist photographers were leaving their shutters open to catch motion; but for them, it was the motion itself that fascinated. The camera made visible what had been invisible, what the Futurist painters and sculptors could otherwise only intimate, or fabricate, with their shivered elaborations on cubist abstraction.
A hundred years later, Lew finds himself reviving and updating the Gilbreths’ technique, but it is Futurism that has given him the framework, and the permission, to do so. And so has the intervening work of photographers, painters, and draughts(wo)men alike, whether imagining the figure in motion or the dissolution of contour into scurrying tracks. This enduring Futuristic tendency in art, photographic or drawn, does not emulate cinema so much as it emulates music, as Lew himself claims, shaping space by shaping time – and vice versa.
In each of his Light Drawings, to paraphrase Paul Klee’s famous phrase, Lew goes for a walk with a line. Or, more to the point, he goes for many walks, and runs, with any of several lines. The density of linear activity Lew captures, left as such or enhanced, can describe not just arcs and traces, but thick textures and surging luminescences, ineffable atmospheres and ominous spaces. Lew’s images often suggest the tangled notations of a multi-pronged Rapidograph pen. But nowhere do they rely on the physical earmarks of drawing – variations in pen pressure, the vagaries of ink, or even the grace of the artist’s hand. Rather, they concentrate our attention on the appearance of line itself – line as image, that is, not as notation, as webs of paths rather than as traces of gesture, reflections on rather than records of movement.
Lew’s linear compositions display a calligraphic fluidity, linear concision, and exquisitely maintained balance between simplicity and extravagance. Of course, these photographs are not “calligraphy” per se, as they cannot manifest the physical or practical conditions of that revered practice; nor do they aspire to incorporate writing into their appearance or content. In their stark eloquence, however, they pay homage to the ancient art form, employing its basic unit, the line, to invent webs and worlds in which the characteristic pleasures, and terrors, of calligraphic imagery are subject to processes and reformations that play no part in calligraphic tradition.
Highly reconstitutable, thanks to the tools of digital image manipulation, Lew has turned his pictures of motion into pictures of imaginary presences. The earliest of Lew’s photo-calligraphies record trails of light, Gilbreth-like, in darkened spaces, some of whose other, more normative components can be distinguished, eerily visible through the gloom. The lights create “drawn” images in the air. But the preponderance of Light Drawings propose an indistinct space, lacking any significant depth of field – although, importantly, not usually adhering to the picture plane. Especially when decorously doubled, mirrored, and reversed (as much through digital manipulation as cameratic action), Lew’s linear structures seem to hang in an odd liminal dimension suspended between us and the “inside” of the picture; the “surface” of the print, such as it is, all but dissolves perceptually. The picture plane, or picture membrane, seems to have vanished. Some of the works, at least, seem to be pretending at three dimensions, but do not claim or strive for optical illusion. This odd articulation of shape results not from any desire to assume the gimmicky characteristics of cinema, but from Lew’s pure delight in the forms themselves, the potential these clustered, imitative and repetitive lines have for surprise and play.
With his Light Drawings Echo Lew has invented a conceptually uncomplicated but visually dense and absorbing kind of art – and has done so by setting himself down and simply investigating and working at a point past which others insist on pushing on. Lew’s calligraphic photo-prints – perhaps we could call them “calligraphs” – relate to much contemporary abstraction, photographic not least; but they do not succumb to the experimental excess or intellectualization that freights so much related work and renders it either thickly impenetrable or weakly conceived or formed. Lew, you could say, produces work that could have been produced by almost anyone but hasn’t been – rather like Keith Haring’s, for instance. Much as did Haring, Lew has devised a method whose very simplicity eludes the imagination; and, like Haring, Lew has established a style within his method that he has infused with personal sensibility and thus proves resistant to imitation. There will be others who produce calligraphs, but none will look quite like Lew’s.
Los Angeles June 2014