New YorkNew York Studio School
January 28 – March 3, 2019
Margrit Lewczuk's Angels, on view at the NY Studio School through March 3rd is a gem of a show that also serves as a love note from the distant past.
Upon entering Lewczuk's exhibition we are greeted by Angel (2015) in gold and black, pink and blue, sienna and ochre washes. Lewczuk's works are for the most part quite thinly painted; rhythms of triangles variously dispersed atop larger ones, which are more evenly placed, intersect with braided forms also composed of triangles. When you look at the paintings, however, you don't see any of this, as the forms take precedence over how they are composed. Nothing is obvious—there is no face, rather a series of brushstrokes fill in for a face, itself flanked by a flurry of criss crossed marks motioning the wind of a wing otherwise invisible on either side of the central form. There is something deeply mysterious and poignant in the immediacy of Lewczuk's Angels.
I rushed over to her at the opening feeling I had to know what the impetus was for this body of work before I could look any deeper. She told me about a visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and how she was captivated by the angels on the pendentives holding up its famous dome structure. So, I realized that what touched me as I entered the room was deeply buried in cultural memory, revived by a significant encounter that clearly left an impression on the artist. To be marked by a work of art is a gift. I can imagine nearly every artist must experience this at least one time and hopefully not too often.
Margarit Lewczuk is free in the way she gets the paint down, not too fussy, just enough care. Her symmetry and the subtle differences within it allow the near bilateral division that most of the works evidence to remain active. This opens the paintings' surface and lets the angels float up despite being anchored to the bottom edge of most of the compositions. Everything feels referenced and yet the effortless way Lewczuk paints enhances the feeling that the memories of angels are not photographic images that the artist retains but rather made of sensations and feelings often communicated more effectively through gestures and sketched out in forms.
While the angels dominate as a motif, there are other images in the show, i.e. a bird in cross forms and wings, seemingly seen from the back. The first room is filled with stenciled cut outs and collages that serve as studies, all in different sizes ranging from 12 to 17 inches high. Lewczuk works out her forms with layers of paper made visible through the cut out openings of her two color works, and sometimes in more complex collages where bits of colored paper have been added. Often the angel's body is an elongated heart shape with its very tip outside the frame. Their simplicity belies a complex network of relations that range from the mosaics in Istanbul to Tibetan prayer flags to festive cut out banners used on Mexican holidays; their colors sing along with the African music that played at the opening.
Angel (2017) on the other side of the front room became, in my eye, the fallen angel in the group giving the body of work displayed a completeness in and of itself. It's very comforting to sit in the presence of Lewczuk's paintings, time melts away in the vastness that our dialogue with art embraces. With the space surrounding these works resonant and full, my mind drifted to the legend of Hagia Sophia's renowned angel where a young boy left alone at the site receives the details for the dome's construction from an angel who appears to him. "Squaring the circle," a metaphor for the impossible, reached its highest perfection in the unsupported dome of Hagia Sophia. The structural solution came from the boy, who was never allowed to return to the building so that the angel he claimed to have left guarding the tools might remain forever.
The timely is a quality in art that, in recent times, has been prized over the timeless. But now with the usurpation of time in the digital world, the suspension that timelessness provides is a much needed relief.
The magic of the exhibition happens in the second room where the paintings are lit conventionally for a few minutes and then, for an equal amount of time, the lights go out to reveal the glowing forms Lewczuk painted using phosphorescent pigments in pale yellow and luminous blue light. Though the effects are quite different, the paintings operate well in both light conditions. At the far end of the room a nearly all white painting attains definition through the darker lines that outline certain forms to create distinctions that separate one area from another. In the dark, the whole painting glows luminous with only the central circles on the angel's body remaining linear while the different degrees of luminosity in the phosphorescent paint now distinguish her forms even as they start to fade slightly just before the lights go on again and recharge the phosphorescence.
With Wings (2017), in blue and white with the lights on, a stenciled fleur-de-lis type pattern sits upside down in the lower left hand corner—as if from the angel's perspective. In the dark the figure and the ground reverse, allowing variations in the tones of the luminous blue areas to create a cascading depth around the central, now dark, form. On the opposite wall an oppositely configured reversal in blues occurs with light at the core in darkness.
My angel in the show is Angel (2017) in pink, pale yellow, raw sienna and thin grey/black washes. The nearly weightless form of the angel's body amidst the floating raw sienna triangular forms carries with it the lightness and ecstasy of the higher realms. In the dark, the profound responsibility of traveling there grounds us. Meanwhile the wings flutter, a child is conceived, and we go on—knowing where we have come from. What Lewczuk achieves in these paintings reveals an awareness of how chance encounters open the door to profound synchronicities and determine the evolution of our lives.
Joan Waltemath is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.