Artist Interview: Richard Lewer - Art Collector

13 July 2010

Fresh from a six-month residency in New York – spent with his ear glued to a police radio scanner – Richard Lewer is now recreating the experience for the Melbourne Art Fair. In his installation at the Orexart stand, he’ll be rebuilding his studio, complete with text-scrawled walls and a sound recording of the police calling out 10-64s in the background.

Above: Richard Lewer, Give me your money and phone bitch. Courtesy: the artist and Orexart, Auckland

Let’s start with your project for the Melbourne Art Fair, which you’ll be exhibiting with Orexart. Can you tell us a little bit more about what it is and what it’s about?

I’m also doing the Basil Sellers, but I’ll start with the New York thing because I just got back two weeks ago. I had a six-month residency at the ISCP, which was just incredible.

I was there for six months and before I went I had the idea of listening to a police scanner over there … you can’t listen to a scanner in Australia because it’s all encrypted. It’s incredible to think of all the security you go through to actually get there [to the United States] and then you can eavesdrop on the police.

I got there and got hold of a scanner and pretty much that filled up my six months – listening to the NYPD.

And what did you find out?

I’d done it once before in New Zealand but this was the absolute other extreme because it was just 24/7. I think within the first five minutes I put it on, there was a stabbing, a sexual assault and a shooting.

And then from there, what I did was play that live in the studio and I then made paintings based on the conversations that I was hearing.

Right: Richard Lewer, Black male, green t shirt, blue shorts. Courtesy: the artist and Orexart, Auckland

Will that be text-based work then?

Well, a bit of both. The way that I actually have my studio is [that] all the walls are filled up with text that I hear – not just through the police scanner but through the day-to-day, walking to the studio and in and around Brooklyn where I was.

I would have the paintings on the go and as stories changed, the paintings would change as well.

I had a list of different codes because they don’t always say “a robbery at such and such bank”. It might be “10-64” or something like that.

It probably took a little while to work out what they were talking about.

But it was really intense because it picks up four different channels at the same time and sticks on that channel until that story’s finished, then it jumps onto the next one. It’s just constant – constant bad stuff, and it’s always really bad stuff that’s happening.

I imagine it’d be really hard to listen to that constantly and not have it affect your own mood.

Yeah, I got really depressed listening all of the time. In the last three weeks to a month, I’d kind of finished with my stories and it was really nice to turn it off because it is so draining. You really have to actually listen to what’s going on to pick up on the stories as well.

Right: Richard Lewer, Drug deal Driggs Street 10-69. Courtesy: the artist and Orexart, Auckland

And what’s going to happen with the work that you produced during this New York residency?

I’ve brought all the paintings back here now and I’m replicating my studio walls, which are all text-driven. My studio’s been like this for the past 15 to 20 years.

I just build up text of overheard conversations. It’s very raw and directly painted onto the wall; it’s covered from top to bottom and almost with no white space left. For anyone that comes in it’s hugely noisy, but I do it for the opposite reason, it calms me down.

It’s about gathering – gathering the stories from the scanner, but gathering the text in the environment I’ve been placed.

Richard Lewer in his studio

So what was behind the decision to recreate the studio walls at Melbourne Art Fair?

I guess in a way I’ve always done this with my studio practice. I really wanted to show the environment where these paintings were made and how I’ve gathered things and the way in which I’ve gathered as well.

People have asked me do this before for shows but it just seems really important now that I’ve actually gone away and made this body of work in a studio [with ISCP in New York]. Then to come back to the art fair and just put it on a white wall – it didn’t really sit right with me.

I just had to recreate the environment in which the works were made … I’ve made a sound recording of the NYPD police scanner as well so that will be playing.

In past work we’ve seen phrases like “Nobody likes a show off” and “I should learn to like myself”. How do you develop or decide on the phrases that you’ll use?

Those two particular ones, they’ve come off my wall. They’ve been chosen for a specific, you know, [because they’re] almost self-help expressions. In some ways that’s why I paint on the walls. It’s that sort of self-help thing; it calms me down, it makes me well so I can keep on making my work. But the way in which I gather and collect the text, they can be quite throwaway statements as well.

I don’t place huge importance on every single bit of text that I put on the wall because it might just be a conversation with a curator that might have come to the studio, or it might have been with an artist, something that stuck with me.

It sounds quite authorial in a way, the same way writers will go around and jot things down in a notebook while you’re talking to them. Do people come back and say “oh I recognise that, you took that from our conversation”?

Yeah, which is kind of embarrassing in a way because they go “well, why is that important?” But they are for different things and it helps me sort out things and continue on with my work.

It’s like this sort of repetitive, note-taking activity that I need to do.

I’ve read descriptions of your work calling it non-fiction. I was interested whether you share this view and how you see the role of narrative in your work?

It gets tricky because all the works are really narrative and then I place a little part of my own autobiographical slant into the narrative.

I’ve always been quite apologetic for doing that … I’ve always [thought] well, I want it to be a lot more factual, why am I muddying the waters?

But I really enjoy that now, and it’s just a big part of what I do. Even with the Basil Sellers work that I’m making now, there are elements from characters that have come from my life … I wasn’t so much apologetic, but questioning what role I played in the actual documentation.

Richard Lewer, Look at each other in the eye..... Courtesy: the artist and Orexart, Auckland

You were a finalist in the biennial Basil Sellers prize in 2008 and again this year. Where does your interest in sport come from? Do you play a lot of sport yourself?

Absolutely. Crime and sport and religion are the key elements of my practice, but sport has played a role in my life.

I box three times a week, I play tennis twice a week and play table tennis once a week and I surf … I’ll go back to the studio at night but I need to do these things in order to make my work. It’s just a balancing thing and it’s also a big part of my work.

The characters that are in Basil Sellers – it’s about three skippers, so these three guys are skipping individually and they reminisce about a tragic event that has taken place in their life.

Every second or third body of work I do is based around sport. The last work was about failure on the sporting field, and having the empathy for these sport players.

Richard Lewer, The sound of your own breathing, 2010. Various video stills, digital video animation colour, sound, 10 min.Courtesy the artist, Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne; Hugo Michell Gallery, Adelaide; and Basil Sellers Art Prize

You’ve been in New York for a while and are now back in Melbourne, but you were born in Hamilton, New Zealand. Where do you call home these days?

Home’s Melbourne. I’ve been here for 14 years but it’s quite funny, lots of people still think I live in New Zealand because I’ve still got my accent.

Jane O'Sullivan

Richard Lewer will be exhibiting his new installation with Orexart at Melbourne Art Fair, from 4 to 8 August 2010. New work will also be exhibited in the Basil Sellers Art Prize exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne from 6 August to 7 November 2010.

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