New YorkNew York Studio School
January 28 – March 3, 2019
Margrit Lewczuk has, as they say, a thing for angels. She has summoned 18 of them for this show, along with two paintings of birds and four of wings: a veritable heavenly host. The problem with angels, of course, is their perpetual ambiguity. Sexually harassed in Sodom, they take devastating revenge; in the Book of Tobit, Raphael is a healer and companion. In the New Testament, they announce both the Nativity and the End of the World. They are, in effect, embodiments of the divine will. But in themselves they are nothing more than bridges between worlds.
Lewczuk's angels silently observe us and allow us to observe them. With their muted colors—which remind the viewer of early Christian catacomb murals perhaps recently unearthed—these icon-like paintings could actually be cult objects. This seemingly fanciful idea is amplified by the fact that seven of the paintings are phosphorescent and glow in the dark. When they materialize in the blackness, they indeed suggest an otherworldly presence, reminding the viewer that angels in fact have no fixed shape and only appear to us in a manner comprehensible to us.
The utter solemnity of Lewczuk's angels derives from their posture. Faceless, arms at their sides, vaguely triangular in form, they are always far away from us no matter how closely we approach them. That distance is metaphysical rather than physical. Angel (2017), a large 60 × 48 acrylic on linen, transforms the angel into a beacon of divine energy. Legs spread as if to gather strength, the angel broadcasts a power liberated from human passion: no lust, no greed, only the love that created the universe, which Lewczuk somehow manages to convey in earthly paint and harmonically symmetrical shapes. Angel (2015), also 60 × 48, is an angel of another color. This dark angel with a terrifyingly swirled visage reminds us that divine love is tempered by divine justice: what we sow, we reap.
Interspersed with these ambiguously anthropomorphic angels are vaguely representational paintings of birds and wings. Again, the divine messengers can take any form, and the bird is only a metaphor for other-earthly communication. The wings, however, evoke another tradition entirely, especially in two grand, 60 × 48 works in the phosphorescent group both titled Wings and both from 2017. In ordinary light, they are one thing—powerful central muscles able to flap huge wings—but in the darkness their phosphorescence transforms them into embodiments of supernatural energy. We inevitably link these shapes to the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert's "Easter Wings" (1633), one of the earliest attempts to transform printed words into visual art. Viewed in the phosphorescent mode (i.e. with the lights out), these wings invite us to take metaphysical flight.
Many artists seek to infuse the spiritual into painting, including Hilma af Klint, who Lewczuk acknowledges in the show catalogue as an inspiration, but very few manage to reach that goal. Margrit Lewczuk does by fusing the ancient technique of icon painting with the modern technique of abstraction and phosphorescent paint. Perhaps this is the true mission of all art: to lift us out of the ordinary and into a reality we can share with angels.
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.