November 13th, 2015

The Untitled Michael Lewy
Luther Phillips

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Michael Lewy’s art exists in spaces that are often bare of even desolation, and utilizes common usually office-related objects to then re-interpret or re-examine them in an abstractified way. There is something very etherealized and conceptualizing about his CGI interpretations of office environments and other equally meaningless spaces, and something appealing too, but my favorite of Lewy’s works always have some sort of story to them—a simple image that suggests some larger story we are missing or a video project that is much about the back-story of his trapped minuscule double for example. (I am thinking of the video projection piece in the City of Work series, that gives us a glimpse of a minuscule Lewy in a CGI workplace dealing with his solitude poorly.)

 

But my favorite example of Lewy’s abilities as a filmmaker is a newer piece, Bigfoot Island—featured below—in which the striking juxtaposition of virtual space invading real space is then flopped on its head when that ubiquitous tiny Lewy slips inside a hole in his floor to go exploring in a world that can at times be bright and almost psychedelic and at times has a very Edward Gorey feel.

 

Lewy’s filmwork reminds me a little bit of all kinds of different directors—the purposeful artificiality of Wes Anderson, the slow-mo shots at the beginning of Melancholia, the blatant artifice in films like Eyes Wide Shut and The Ninth Gate, and the supernatural emptiness so characteristic of David Lynch. What these films share, and what is true of Lewy’s work specifically, is a black comedy / lighthearted horror with at its core this very blatant artifice—when the characters in Twin Peaks begin suddenly shaking, when in Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise picks up a newspaper and the headline, after a very near run-in with death, says, “LUCKY TO BE ALIVE”. It’s a joke where no one is laughing not even the artist, but one in which we all sit back and calmly appreciate the profound beauty of this horrific gag.

 

Of course, most of Lewy’s output involves stills of either purely CGI-constructed images or doctored photographs, and when I first came across Lewy, it was as a result of his aforementioned City of Work series, in which he placed himself in a variety of roles throughout a very generic CGI cityscape. I was drawn to the crude corporate inhouse training quality of many of these images at that time, but my favorite Lewy stills come later. With Empty Space, he creates virtual landscapes that are completely empty, a kind of Second Life post-rapture. And since then, Lewy has only continued to become more abstract. With his Chair, Wire, and most recent Water series, he has been exploring a digital minimalism that is attractive in its unadulterated ersatz-ness, but as with the aforementioned Eyes Wide Shut, these blatantly meaningless images, of a ball or a pole, though often close to minimalism can also approach the campy two-dimensionalism of a pop sensibility, and it seems as if Lewy is trying to showcase the emptiness of both these well-established traditions in certainly the Chair and Wire series’ at least. Or as if he were trying to create a kind of campy minimalism, as impossible as that may seem. And in this he is largely successful.

 

But the question is why. Why are we drawn to these images and why is he making them. The answer is simple. All the characters—when they appear in Lewy’s otherwise very empty works—are Lewy himself, and this gives a very clear sense that all of this is occurring inside Lewy’s mind. The virtual world is also an imaginal world, but they also speak to a universality, a propaganda for a future sameness, and the desire to turn our imagination into something real and actualized, and therefore are not simply an unveiling of the emptiness of what amounts to the detritus of an atrophied imagination, but are like a call to the most saccharine of empty epiphanies.

 

However, that having been said, Bigfoot Island presents something of a different picture. In this particular film there is another character than Lewy, glimpsed momentarily, a strange CGI beast seen from a distance, and the world Lewy occupies once he falls into the CGI portal is different than his other works as well. It is more video game and children’s-book-inspired. There is at least one still that is reminiscent of Lewy’s long experience with industrial landscapes, but most of these images are either more playful, more organismic, or more delicate than earlier Lewy images.

 

Another aspect of Lewy’s film-work specifically that I find especially interesting is that he often seems to be playing with the idea of a place between the still and the moving image. Most notably, it’s hard to classify his Water series. (These are not yet available to the public, but the one I have seen was a short loop of a very unnatural green CGI water with some dark splotch in the center of it rocking up and down.) But also, with many of his films, the tiny Lewy moving through the otherwise still landscape seems like some obscene bit of vandalism making its way across the page, or like an insect traversing a Mondrian or something—or like a tiny toy figurine come to life within the diorama.

 

In fact, I would argue, what makes Lewy exciting is specifically that this interplay—his minimalist / pop sensibility, this barren / playfulness dichotomy, as well as the internal / universal sense of his artwork—all works together to create something unclassifiable in toto even if we feel we can clearly classify a piece here or a piece here. To understand Lewy, an audience should peruse his entire portfolio. It is in our confusion at his many distinct visions that we find the artist himself.

 

Of course, early Lewy was focused primarily on work and the workplace, but throughout his pieces since that time, Lewy steadily stripped away everything, pulling back to a kind of abstract noir [the Suburban Noir series] to then a purely empty virtual world [Empty Space] and then pure meaninglessness of form [Chair, Wire] but with Bigfoot Island, we see a more personal world at the center of all of this abstraction, and now we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

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To see more of Lewy’s work, you can go here.