Thursday, September 5, 2013

Towards Ontario

Jeffrey Lewis, Towards Ontario/mirus caelum I,
encaustic on linen, 1998
Christ Pantocrater
, 6th century. Sinai
In 2004, Jeffrey Lewis spent a few months in the Center for the Arts and Religion studio, patiently laying tiny dabs of hot, colored wax onto a stretched, linen canvas. In his quiet, patient presence, time seemed to stretch into eternity. Even when I stood watching for what seemed like a very long time, nothing much seemed to change on the canvas. Yet, when I came back the next day, or after a weekend away, the image would be transformed.

Mummy portrait of a young woman,
encaustic, 3rd century, Louvre
The technical name of Lewis’s favored medium is “encaustic.” This slow, demanding way of working has its origins deep in the past. Some of the earliest icons that have been preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, like the much-reproduced icon of Christ Pantocrater, were made in this way. Art historians link such images to the even earlier portraits made in Egypt from the first century BCE through the third century CE. Often called Fayum mummy portraits, they were painted on boards that were attached to the linen wrappings covering the faces of the deceased.

The works that Lewis made in our studio are not portraits, however, but skyscapes. An earlier piece, titled Towards Ontario/mirus caelum I, hangs just outside my office, where I see it every time I come in or go out.

Jeffrey Lewis, Towards Ontario/Matins, encaustic, 1998

Although Lewis used photographs as reference materials, these paintings are not copies of any particular photograph, nor records of any particular moment in time. Rather, they are built up from memory and imagination. These delicate evocations of sky and land glow with an inner light. Their deeply textured surfaces reveal meticulous observation coupled with a keen sense of abstract relationships, creating a sense of mystery and of deep familiarity. In looking northwards, towards Ontario, Lewis invites us into a meditation on color and form, and to join him in wonder as he contemplates the vastness of God’s creation.

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