Ross Lewis: Creating a new artistic language through Chinese experience

American artist, literati painter, and art educator Ross Lewis. Photo provided to Sino-US.com

Ross Lewis, an American artist who is well-known for his Chinese literati painting and an art educator, recently completed his first large museum exhibition at Today’s Art Museum in Beijing, where his latest work, Rope Paintings, made a debut.

The artist has been studying and advocating the spirit of Chinese calligraphy and landscaping for over 30 years, which has a large influence on his career and artistic concept.

The Rope Paintings, which were created with inked rope and color on thick watercolor paper, and combines baimiao, a traditional Chinese painting technique, with the Western printmaking, open a new chapter in Lewis’ art career.

Before the Rope Paintings, Lewis also created the Dancing Calligraphy, Shan-zi Series, Scroll Paintings, the Subway Mural in New York City, and also several public installations including Belvedere Fanscapes (1993), Movement in Space (1995), and Parallel Motion (1989).

In early 1980s, he was one of the first people in New York to curate art exhibits of contemporary Chinese art, and was appointed Director of the Chinese Art Department at Hammerquist Gallery where he organized exhibits, lectures and demonstrations on Chinese Art.

Now, he can speak fluent Chinese and lecture in Mandarin on the convergence of contemporary Chinese and Western art. He often finds inspiration and passion in Chinese culture, but he never forces himself to make that happen. It’s just like there are two switches, one Chinese, one American, and when he was trying to find inspiration, the Chinese one turned on naturally.

If Lewis’ love for Chinese culture is spontaneous, his deep understanding of Chinese culture and the ability to combine East with West naturally in his work never happened by accident.

In an interview with Sino-US.com, he talked about some of the century’s greatest Chinese traditional artists who had large influence on his career; how he demonstrates the Chinese way of thinking through his art; and also the way he figures out his own artistic language by combining calligraphy and landscape painting with other forms of art.

Learning from Chinese art masters

Lewis’s first introduction to Chinese calligraphy and language happened in 1972 when he was still in high school. Since then he had been planning to go to Oberlin College where he chose East Asian Studies as his major. In his fourth grade, he was able to advance his Chinese language in Taiwan Normal University thanks to one of Oberlin College’s exchange programs in Taiwan.

While studying in Taipei, he was fortunate to serve as an English translator at the National History Museum where he studied painting conservation techniques with a master mounter.

He was also very lucky to have the chance to study ink painting and calligraphy with several traditional Chinese painters and calligraphers. One of them was Li Yihong, a real artist in Lewis’ eyes, who was the first to teach Lewis to find his own path. “He told me to close the doors, go inside, and to paint. And also, not just to be a follower, but to be a leader,” Lewis said.

The other was Zhang Daqian, one of the best-known and most prodigious Chinese artists of the twentieth century, who had just returned from the US to Taiwan.

Life in Taipei for Lewis was wonderful and the people there made him feel comfortable, though his original dream was to come to the mainland, and study in Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou.

His first trip to the mainland didn’t come until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978 when he was on vacation with his parents in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. For the next couple of years, he was able to come to China for many times as a tour guide, and he also met some of the well-known artists at the Zhejiang Art Academy in Hangzhou including Lu Yanshao who he had the most interaction with, taking his own paintings to him and seeking his feedback.

In 1984, he came along with his mother, who, as an opera singer, was invited by the Chinese government to sing for the celebration of the Chinese National Holiday in the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. He translated for his mother on the stage before each of her songs. As part of that tour, he also displayed his ink paintings and lectured in Mandarin on the convergence of contemporary Chinese and Western art at the Central Art Academy in Beijing, which became a good moment for him to reconnect with Chinese artists.

Thinking through arts

While many of Lewis’ Chinese friends study Western arts, where they find passion, Lewis finds his passion and inspiration in Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting. He relates his arts with Chinese culture, instead of his own society.

The study of Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting for over 30 years has largely influenced his perception of space and movement, and it has become the cornerstone of many of his works.

He doesn’t like to pin down to one idea, and likes the way Chinese people think and converse: always trying to find a balance.

“I think there is a different rhythm and different way of seeing the world in Chinese art and culture. Part of why I feel comfortable in China is that no one gives you a straight answer.”

Even if some of the imagery in Lewis’ arts is Western style in a way, the concepts underneath are very Chinese. “The Long Scroll Painting” is a very good example which shows Lewis’ efforts to reflect the Chinese way of thinking, and also his own emotional change during that period of his life. (The picture of the Long Scroll Painting is attached in the next page.)

Sometimes the way Lewis deals with his paintings is very much like the one that Chinese artists do with a literati painting, both of which demonstrates an emotional change along with the change of space and time.

But he did not force himself to think intentionally in a Chinese way or imitate the concepts of literati painting, it just happens naturally while he was painting. And he thinks it was because he has “eaten too much Chinese culture over the years.”

Creating a new artistic language

Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting are the two most fundamental elements in Lewis’ work. But what Lewis has always tried to do over the years was to figure out his own artistic language. To do so, he tried to combine the two traditional Chinese arts with other forms of arts and medium such as modern dance, sculpture, public installations, Chinese fans, Tai Qi Chuan, and also the ropes.

In the early 1980s, he started to work on “Dance Calligraphy”, which incorporates the elements of Chinese calligraphy and the movement of modern dance which he observed at some of the leading modern dance companies including Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane.

In the late 1990s, he turned to Chinese fans, and created the Shan-zi (fan) Series, as he likes the neither too square nor too round shape of Chinese fans. He also used acrylic instead of ink on both sides of the fan to create an effect more like printmaking.

Scroll Painting is another target of his efforts. While drawing on a rectangular paper, the movement of the imagery is often interrupted by the border of the paper. So he began to paint on a scroll which enables the artist to keep painting by rolling and extending the length of the paper. In order to capture movement, he uses the idea of cursive writing and standard writing, and has made a scroll machine through which he can see the full scheme of this painting.

The Scroll Machine Photo provided to Sino-US.com

One unique idea in Lewis’ scroll painting is the rips of the painting paper, which derived from the artist’s dream to be a sculpture. As he began with Chinese painting and calligraphy, he somehow tied down to one idea of being a painter. As he started with painting, he once thought he could only be a painter, but when he got the heavy weight scroll paper and made rips, he realized all of a sudden that he could be a sculpture and a painter at the same time.

By combining the calligraphy and landscape painting with other forms of art, Lewis also made a contribution to the evaluation of those arts. In addition, as a contemporary artist, he has a strong sense of social engagement. Several of his installations, such as Belvedere Fanscapes (1993), Movement in Space (1995), and Parallel Motion (1989) further extended his “dance calligraphies” to the public art field.

Over the past six years, Lewis has been working with the rope, which he feels is the most exciting period of his career, as all of his ideas for the years started to converge with each other.

It is created with inked ropes and colors on thick watercolor paper, sometimes with paper-cutting, collage, and tearing to intentionally destroy the completeness of the composition and create a special visual effect.

Lewis said when people are doing art, they cannot realize what they are doing until a couple of years later. And the present moment makes him feel the most rewarded as people begin to understand his works, which makes him feel he has his own language.

Now, the door has opened for Lewis to exhibit a lot in China. However, as both an artist and a father, the most difficult part in life for him is to find the balance between his work and the time he spends with his family.

“The balance is really a tough thing. Going forward, it is going to be one of my hardest things because the door has opened, but it means a long way from home. That’s one of the things that I’m struggling with right now,” he said.


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