Margrit Lewczuk’s new paintings, the Phosphorescent Paintings that make up this exhibition at the Maier Museum of Art in Lynchburg, Virginia, are a trip into an artistic terra incognito; a realm without signposts or guiding historical precedents, literally, a walk in the dark. The paintings encourage a new way of looking at looking, of seeing the act of seeing. Initially we are presented with Lewczuk’s straight-ahead paintings, most composed from three or four bright or florescent colors, black and white on a dry ground. As in much of Lewczuk’s recent painting, a gridded space and bold graphic design keep the visual readings flat. The presence of distilled figurative forms echoing Aztec sculpture, oriental dancers, or Greek goddesses are a recent development that multiplies the dialectical interpretations this new body of work engenders.
Traditionally, capturing the effects of light and shadow or the emotional and spatial responses of contrasting colors are some of the greatest challenges facing the painter. As modern abstractionists eschewed any reference to the figure or the object, they still relied on the properties of light—reflected light—to convey their expressions. But just as Seurat invented pointillism as a new way of transcribing coloristic light, and Rothko contrasted large planes of saturated tones to enhance the viewers sensitivities to expanses of color, Lewczuk with the Phosphorescent Paintings is likewise investigating the element of light through painting. In this case, with an unconventional technique, paint radiates and generates light itself, rather than merely reflecting it.
"Newman drew the curtains, Rothko pulled down the shades, and Reinhardt turned off the lights." So goes the old but still relevant aphorism about the New York School’s dark drive towards modernistic reduction. In a darkened room, Lewczuk’s paintings radiate unearthly ghost-like effigies of themselves. The eyes require several seconds, perhaps minutes to begin to adjust to this new visual experience. Linear elements stand out like neon. Large areas of glowing phosphorescent matter transmit a sense of depth that is so unexpected, one is forced to question how they’ve conceived of graphic space before. Walking up to a large passage of glowing pigment, I suddenly felt oddly incorporeal, realizing that I, like a vampire gazing in a mirror, could not cast a shadow on this painting. I was struck with a kind of coloristic vertigo. This is not the same kind of refracted light one might experience looking at a stained glass window or a large-scale photo transparency in a light box. In those situations the illumination passes through a colored filter, but Lewczuk’s light quality is similar to the glow of embers in the ashes of a dying fire, or to a swarm of fireflies massed in calculated abstract formations. The paintings seem to function on the backside of the spectrum, forcing me to reevaluate my ideas of how my organs of sense and perception really work.
As an abstract painter, Lewczuk’s investigations of new media are in keeping with the modernist orthodoxy. The sudden appearance of the figure in these, perhaps some of her potentially most abstract paintings, presents another aspect of her practice that requires further contemplation. Are her figures mere compositional devices, a way to introduce curvy seductive organic forms, or is there a deeper, perhaps symbolic, or even spiritual intent? Are they a response to the evanescent qualities of the medium, an attempt to reestablish a classical humanistic content? A statement about the absurdity of the painter’s quest to "boldly go where no man has gone before" and maybe to see what no one has seen before? To not just "see" the light but to "be" the light in a world of darkness? Sometimes, the most interesting qualities a painting can embody are the questions it evokes rather than those it answers, to raise concerns that might evolve into convictions.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.