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Martin Lewis

Stepping into the Light

11 October 2002

As the 'Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art' 2002 continues, another exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery offers a poignant view of New York's skyline at the beginning of the twentieth century.

From 12 October 'Martin Lewis: Stepping into the Light' profiles the life and work of a little-known Castlemaine-born artist Martin Lewis (1880-1962), who left his native land to become a shining light in American printmaking during the 1920s and 1930s.

Curated by Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, the exhibition features 45 works by Lewis drawn from public and private collections in Australia and the United States.

The exhibition traces Lewis's artistic development from the time he departed Castlemaine for Sydney (where he studied at the Julian Ashton School) in 1899, to his most productive time in New York in the late 1920s.

New York was Lewis's subject of choice and an endless source of inspiration, enabling him to display a mastery of etching and the tonal variations possible with lithographs and intaglio techniques.

Lewis's depictions of dark street scenes, which remind us of the paintings of Edward Hopper, convey the essence of New York and the spirit of the city ― its grand architecture and people going about their everyday lives.

Minister for the Arts Matt Foley said Lewis's atmospheric prints of New York City were vivid descriptions of an era in which skyscrapers were an innovation and formed a distinct skyline unique to New York and Chicago.

'Some places were so accurately recorded by Lewis, they can be used as authentic records of a particular place and time in American history', Mr Foley said.

Queensland Art Gallery Director Doug Hall said many of the artist's scenes were moody and atmospheric, while others were lively, casual compositions that featured humorous observations of people caught off-guard, recalling Lewis's earlier experiences in commercial illustration.

Eight significant works from the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection feature in the exhibition including Orator, Madison Square 1916, a typical and memorable Martin Lewis observation of a New York street rally.

'Butter and egg man's holiday 1926, one of Lewis's first satirical prints and also a work from the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection, is another humorous depiction of urbanites at the beach,' Mr Hall said.

'Stepping into the Light' also features several works that indicate the influence of traditional printmaking techniques and Japanese aesthetics on the artist's practice.

Street Booth, Tokyo, New Years Eve 1927, regarded as one of the Lewis's most successful Japanese subjects, incorporates a unique treatment of artificial light which dramatically contrasts against the darkness of night.

'As "Stepping into the Light" records the emergence of New York during the early years of the twentieth century, it is also evidence of the work of an artist who was a pivotal precursor to the social realist movement', Mr Hall said.

Interestingly, Lewis taught colleague and friend Edward Hopper, an artist now famed as America's iconic realist painter, to etch.

'Martin Lewis: Stepping into the Light' continues at the Queensland Art Gallery until 1 December 2002.