Lewis’s paintings seize the throat of analytical thought and plunge a dagger deep into the spine of primal human emotions. When viewing the works en masse, a sense of calm contemplation is apparent, but draw closer and Lewis’s meticulous details reveal the brutally metaphoric stories of man’s lionhearted struggles and savage battles.
His painting style has evolved into an expressive representation of his subjects, while still retaining the well studied form and color flow of his previous works. He also uses complex filigree and scripts to break the dimensional plane. Added together, the resulting style is a visceral, ornate swirl celebrating strength and perseverance.
Gorilla Black 3 (Portrait of Marlon Parrish), 2010
Many of Lewis’s works are poised in the pivotal moment prior to battle or immediately after a conquest, when a warrior is stealing their nerves or relaxing their heart. Consequently his subjects are perched upon a knife’s edge of unleashed fury and quiet introspection.
Lewis’s works eloquently portray the darkest, teeth-clenching moments of the human condition by embracing the savage heart of man’s barbaric and lustful wrath. Yet despite the reoccurring themes of bottled rage and cold-hearted disembowelment, his work celebrates the stoic endurance a true warrior must embody as they free themselves from the binds of self defeating, overflowing emotions.
Lewis’s work is heart-breakingly honest, and it is abundantly clear that his own blood and tears flow through the work. Anyone who has stood ground and faced personal demons will feel the stirring of raw fear and furry in their bowels when viewing Lewis’s latest series. And though Lewis is clearly celebrating personal triumph over mortal suffering, it is impossible to not be clawed from within when viewing his work.
Portrait of Henry Lewis by Shawn Barber. (photo property of Shawn Barber)
Below are some of the works from the previous two years. Many were a part of two notable gallery shows, including Lewis’s first solo show at Corey Helford Gallery, in L.A. in 2009 and a 2010 show with the unbelievably talented Mike Davis at Fecal Face, in San Francisco. Trippe with Fecal Face published a great recap of the opening night. Go here to see the opening and many artworks from the show by both Henry Lewis and Mike Davis.
Trippe with Fecal Face has also conducted multiple studio visits through the years at Lewis’s studio. They are fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses at the life of this commanding artist. I excerpted a photo from each visit to pique your interest.
A 2009 studio visit also featuring Mike Davis’s work is here.
2008 works-in-progress – Henry can draw from anything – even a phone snap. (photo property of Trippe @ Fecal Face)
Worth noting, Lewis is one of the artists at Skull & Sword in San Francisco. Skull & Sword was founded by the world renowned tattooer Grime (whose waiting list is 2+ years long). The other artists in the shop are the infamous Yutaro Sakai and Lango. This quartet of tattoo artists comprises one of the most talented shops on the planet. It is no coincidence that Henry Lewis is a part of this powerful posse.
*Interesting “Ransom Side Note” – I happened to be in shop (under the quick-witted needles of Yutaro Sakai) when the artist presented the glass to Grime. He had hand carried the almost two foot wide piece on the plane (and yes, it’s heavy). He was lamenting that despite the pains he took, the piece was cracked in transit. I recall Grime reassuring him that all warriors bear the scars of their battles. (‘cause Grime is classy like that.) It now sits in the lobby of the shop.
Juxtopoz has a fantastic video of Henry tattooing fellow artist Sylvia Ji. It shows how quickly he can create a stunning tattoo from first sketch through to the final art. The video also encapsulates Henry’s ability to fill a room with laughter with his encompassing sense of humor. Go here to see the clip.
If you would like to see Henry Lewis for a tattoo, you may contact the shop for an appointment. Stating the obvious – be prepared to be placed on a waiting list. (And in case you are wondering — yes, I have a tattoo by Henry, and it’s as awesome as you would expect. )
Skull & Sword
3415 Cesar Chavez
San Francisco, CA 94110
Since Lewis has established his prowess as both a staggeringly talented painter AND an exceptionally skilled tattoo artist, he is a well-known public figure in San Francisco. So much so, he was selected to be one of the ‘muses’ for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) 75th anniversary advertising campaign, “Muse.” The campaign celebrated the emotional connections between people and works of art. The outdoor billboard & street sign campaign paired iconic artworks from SFMOMA’s collection with prominent creative individuals who act as muses in the Bay Area Community.
Like many popular artists of our day, Henry has also lent his illustration skills to a few clothing lines including T-shirts for True Love & False Idols titled the “TLFI’s Hollyhood Series.”
Henry was kind enough to grant an interview. Below are the five questions I ask everyone plus a few personal ones. There is also an interesting interview conducted by Trippe of Fecal Face from 2008 which includes quite a few drawings.
What artists or creative people have influenced you?
I am heavily influenced by my coworkers Grime, Lango and Yutaro because they are constantly creating around me. The teachings of Peter Paul Rubens, Paul Urich, and Erik Foss have been a really big inspiration. Also Tim Harrington, Carl Dobsky, and I can’t forget Mr. Shawn Barber. I’m also inspired by music: the music of Rob Halford!
Not including other artists or art, what inspires you?
Random interactions in my daily life, being a bit of a voyeur, people watching. I try to be a fly on the wall, though this hair says otherwise.
Your work uses a great deal of symbolism, some of it specific, historic and/or personal – in what way does this help you speak your truth?
The symbols I use are timeless, and I try to direct the ideas of my modern life through those symbols. If you have an inkling of what that symbol is, you can find your own truth in the piece. It’s like using a visual language that everyone can understand to describe my thoughts. Also, as a tattoo artist, that’s how we work – tattooing involves basic iconography; symbolism passed through the ages. It’s one way that my tattooing and my fine art blend with each other.
You are an accomplished tattoo artist working in one of the best shops on the planet (Skull & Sword in San Francisco) and you are surrounded by easily the most talented tattoo artists of the era. Your non-stop all-nighter work/play habits are well known. Quite frankly, it doesn’t seem like your brain and body ever get to rest. How does this constant barrage of creative stimuli both motivate your work and (if ever) frustrate your process?
There comes a point where it’s just visual overload. I kind of go into mental shutdown for about an hour after work, and what’s important is for me to have some social contact right after the tattoo shop before going into the studio. I’m not a machine, I need to have a social life – but my social life is in the company of other painters, artists, and musicians who keep me inspired and push me to continue. I’m frustrated daily, but I work through it because I have no choice. I’m not doing this to gain notoriety; it’s just all I’ve ever been, since I was a child.
Your work is rife with powerful and sometimes opposing emotions, how much does this seep into your own life? Can you put the “intentions” down with your paintbrush or do you carry them with you throughout the duration of the painting?
I carry it with me when I wake up and when I go to sleep. It never comes off.
What overall feeling or message do you hope viewers perceive in your work?
I don’t have a specific message; I never claimed to be an academic or “ghetto scholar” if you will. If I work for a goal, it’s to show anyone from a low-income family that through perseverance and hard work you can really make something of yourself and not stay trapped in your own mind. I speak for the common inner city youth, and I hope that my work inspires young struggling artists as I was inspired in my own adolescence.
Since you straddle the worlds of fine art and tattooing, what is your opinion about the disparity in appreciation and value placed on the art of tattooing?
There are two kinds of tattooers: the technicians that can do flash and the true artists. And no one really starts off as an artist. You have to pay your dues and earn that title. My problem with a lot of tattooers today is that everyone wants some limelight but not everyone wants to work for it. It’s all chiefs and no Indians. But take Ed Hardy for example; he’s worked in many mediums and mastered them all. So I think that people who don’t consider tattooing to be a legitimate art form aren’t fully aware of all the artists out there who have changed this game and given us all legitimacy. There’s a saying: “If you don’t belong, don’t be long.” Either you’re into the tattoo community, or you’re not – and if you’re not, there are certain things you just won’t understand. Personally I think tattooing is one of the hardest forms of art because you really have to be all about it; there is no room for the dilettante.
You are very active with Safehouse Atelier, Sketch Tuesdays at 111 Minna, and other local San Francisco art events. How does your involvement in these additional activities nurture you?
I think it’s fun to get out into the community when I can, and it helps me to see what other people are doing without invading their personal creative space. It’s very inspiring to see what people bring to the table at these events – and also I can use them as an excuse to hang out with friends and meet new artists.
What is the part of your process that you enjoy the most?
When I open my studio, turn on the lights, sit down with my cup of coffee and germinate a game plan for a new piece or for existing pieces.
Fuck it, giving it away. Because they’re never done; I just stop painting. There’s never enough time in the day.
If you were NOT an artist, what would you be doing (as in: not a fine artist or a tattoo artist)?
I’d be a cobbler.
Lewis will be exhibiting his latest series of work titled “The Absence of Light” at Corey Helford Gallery. (His second solo show with the gallery.)
The reception for “The Absence of Light”, is Saturday, March 19th from 7 to 10pm and is open to the public. Worth noting, a solo exhibition of new works by Adam Wallacavage titled “Dreamhome Heartaches” will also be opening the same evening. Both exhibitions will be on display through April 6, 2011.
A review of the show can be read here at “Curated Magazine.” Below is an excerpt.
Curated Magazine Notes
For “The Absence of Light”, Lewis’ new collection of works represents a catharsis for extraction and reflection based on his fixations from adolescence and family. A mirror of human emotions tied to memories of the present and past, Lewis draws from his personal experiences creating timeless narratives and mythological environments filled with heros, icons of beauty and historical artifacts. Lewis adds, “These self-made fantasy scenes, though dark at first glance, react with humor towards the past, free of apathy, and curiosity of the future.”
“The Absence of Light”
March 19 – April 6, 2011
Opening reception Saturday, March 19 from 7 to 10pm
Corey Helford Gallery
8522 Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
You may view more works by the artist at Henry Lewis’s website.
Thank you for your time Henry! (and big thanks to Henry’s trusty side-kick Lila, too.)