I’ve always found that lots of children’s books, while appearing to be unthreatening and light hearted, are actually quite creepy underneath the surface. My mum has always hated Noddy, even when she was a kid. Before Noddy was made more PC and acceptable, there was a real menace underlying its storylines. Mr. Plod was really mean to Noddy, and poor Golliwog got a crap deal even when things weren’t his fault. Grimm’s Fairytales are chocca-block with tales of the macabre and disquieting. In Hansel and Gretel, when the stepmother comes onto the scene they take their children and leave them in the woods! And then when they manage to find their way back, they take them out and leave them again! I’m sorry, but that’s just bad parenting.
The classic example of a kid’s movie that is superficially childish but actually totally screwed is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s like some sort of crazy test to wend your way through Wonka’s madhouse alive. Inevitably the children are slowly struck off one by one, and Mr. Wonka is worryingly nonchalant about their fates; he announces ever so casually that Violet Boregard is going to end up in the juicing room. The freakiest bit is when they are traveling through the tunnel on the barge and ‘the rowers show no sign of slowing’. On the tunnel wall is a psychedelic montage of people and animals; the chicken getting its head cut off was always particularly terrifying.
There is a point to all this rambling I can assure you. We are actually here to talk about art. And here is my segue, I kept thinking about that part of Willy Wonka when I was looking around Peter Lewis’ exhibition Scalpelicious at ROAR! gallery. That part of the movie always totally freaked me out when I was a kid. Now I am much older and more mature I was able to wander around this show without covering my eyes with my hands, but there was definitely something reminiscent of Willy Wonka in Lewis’ work. It is the unsettling conflation of childish imagery and adult themes of politics, science and gender that characterises these works and brings them to life.
Peter Lewis is a Dunedin based artist who creates these detailed and delicate montages. He foraged through op-shops and library cast-offs to find old books, children’s encyclopedias, and illustrated fairytales, to massacre. He then reinvigorates them, places them in alien landscapes, cuts and pastes, aligns disparate images, creates people with animal heads and vice versa. The result is a colourful psychedelia of weird and wonderful creatures, drinking tea and playing board games while giant squids and monsters squelch around them.
In his use of montage Lewis draws on a long history of this technique. Most famously, the Dadaists who were scampering around in early twentieth century Berlin were big fans of cut and paste as a means to create new and startling images. Dada was an art movement that exploited the power of chance and surprise to determine how artworks were made. In this manner, Dada artists such as Hannch Höch collected found materials like pamphlets, posters, and photographs which she then manipulated to create her detailed montages. These were not only decorative but addressed the ever present political issues of the Weimar Republic, such as the position of women within society and the growing influence of the mass print media. In the bizarrely constructed images that resulted, these issues were addressed with a certain irony, and were certainly filtered through the skepticism and wit for which Dada is well known.
This kind of depreciating humour is evident throughout Scalpelicious and very much shared by Peter Lewis. These images don’t take themselves too seriously. One of my favourites was ‘Tiananmen Duck’. This depicted the infamous Tiananmen Square, scene of clashes between the restrictive Chinese government and protestors. The most well known representation of this area is that famous photograph of the one protestor standing solitary before the oncoming bulk of a tank. Normally therefore the domain of serious journalists and documentary photographers, on this space Lewis has overlaid a gratuitous yellow duck, thereby subverting the seriousness of the image and reworking a cultural iconic image.
These pieces are constantly reworking, re-contextualising and sabotaging the imagery that Lewis has borrowed from innumerable sources. Lewis describes his technique as akin to that of a DJ who samples and rewrites pre-existing pieces of music. In this way, Lewis’ work is very much like a visual sampling; an eclectic mix of images stolen from anything the artist can get his hands on.
The works therefore, like Hannah Höch’s almost a century ago, are also an examination on our image saturated culture.
Images and representations pervade every moment of our modern existence. We are bombarded everyday with images from advertising, magazines, television and the internet which shape the way we think, act and live our lives. Lewis’ images are almost parodies of the vociferousness of the mass media. The sheer number of different images and references to popular culture make these works almost like music videos or the E! channel. But saying that I mean they convey a vast number of images simultaneously. When watching music videos or E! I almost feel tired from the rapid fire cuts from shot to shot. There is never a moment to focus your attention or slow down. Each moment is almost overlapped and overlaid by another.
Lewis revels in this technique of oversaturation and excess. In their playful references, the works in this show are a pastiche of both the E! channel and the macabre undertones of Hansel and Gretel. In Lewis’ world skipping girls with octopus legs make friends with aliens and toy ducks preside over Tiananmen Square. It is an implausible world where the fantastical becomes entirely believable, and above all highly entertaining.
WORK BY PETER LEWIS ROAR! gallery
August 31 – September 17