Tony Lewis. Alms Comity and Plunder
curated by Alberto Salvadori
On Saturday, 12 March 2016, the Marino Marini Museum in Florence will open Alms Comity and Plunder, the first solo show held in a European institution by the young African American artist Tony Lewis (b. 1986, Chicago), an exhibition created specially for the museum’s crypt. Lewis is one of the most representative artists of his generation, and he finds his place in the tradition of such conceptual artists as Jenny Holzer, and Lawrence Weiner, and among such great African American artists as David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, and Charles Gaines, whose works analyse language, words, objects, and their effects. Lewis’ work is primarily founded on a relationship to writing and its semantic and lexical value. The characters he uses come from different languages, whether shorthand or comic books; one on-going project is drawn from Life’s Little Instruction Book, a moralizing handbook in every sense of the word, and a product of the classist ideology of contemporary American society.
Lewis’ presence in Florence enters into an important chapter of history for our city and for all art, one in which several decades ago artists and intellectuals formed one of the groups that would leave its mark on the contemporary language of the arts: the visual poets and Gruppo 70. The words of Lamberto Pignotti, “the course of art unfailingly and inevitably causes conservatives much grief”, can be borrowed to introduce the works of Lewis at the Marino Marini Museum. Luciano Ori also helps us enter deeper into the work of the young American artist: “visual poetry arose not from the institutional history of art (or literature, if one insists on it), but from the history of mass communication”. These artists, then, were among the first to find interest in the “things” of the world, in the great universal questions, without hiding in their own history or tradition, but rather leaping beyond such concepts: today, young artists like Lewis are in the things of the world.
This exhibition primarily presents new works, or pieces that have been reworked in light of a dialogue with the architecture of the crypt. For the first time, the artist has decided to work with a material other than graphite, using pure pigments – characteristic of the Florentine painting tradition – for one of his works. This choice underlines how the exhibitions at the Marini Museum are projects and productions that are always specially designed for the space and context of the place.
This exhibition presents an “exo-literary” form of art that is activated systematically through the use of several devices. Floor drawings, large drawing/sculptures, will occupy extensive areas of the crypt. Authentic appropriations of what in German we might call Raum – place, room, space – these objects transform the geometric rigidity of the surfaces, revealing an accumulation and a shapeless, uncontrollable spatiality; as Lewis himself says, they evoke Oldenburg’s soft sculptures and Chamberlain’s assemblages, seeking to conceptualize and give concrete expression to what the artist calls the “most powerful object”, that is, the floor of the space where he works.
Drawings appear on the walls of some of the crypt spaces; in these, words are broken down and the semantic value of the letters, the value of the signs, takes on an autonomy beyond the composition. The word chosen is connected to a reference, to a personal meaning, to a sensation related to the place: the exhibition space of the Marini Museum. Once the crypt of a church – for a thousand years, it was a burial place for the monks of the San Pancrazio monastery – and a place of transition from earthly to heavenly life, today it is a place of creation and resistance, the same resistance that in the words of the artist can be sensed and that cannot change. The uneasy relationship between the surface and the space beyond the plane, set between the physicality of the image and its role as a border and barrier, has never been resolved in writing, each time reopening new questions that the image raises.
Finally, words written on the wall, 7 ?Look people in the eye, created using screws, rubber bands and pigments, recalls one of the hundreds of preachy pronouncements making up the guide to behaviour for American working class and petit bourgeoisie families, Life’s Little Instruction Book. This moralizing vade mecum is the fruit of a classist vision of society, in which customs are classified and classifiable in a sort of social taxonomy capable of using behavioural and linguistic conventions to re-establish one’s place in a class or social group of origin. In essence, this model of upbringing was a formidable tool for social control, left over from the extremely strict and moralizing Victorian culture which, given the British roots of the ruling classes, infused America with a clear idea of society and one’s place within it for much of the 1900s. By reclaiming these sentences and giving them a new context, the artist highlights all their limits and weaknesses, at times connecting them to his personal history.
The exhibition has been made possible through the support of the Tuscan Regional Authority and OAC-Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze.
The museum is grateful for the invaluable contribution of the Massimo De Carlo Gallery, Milan-London-Hong Kong.