VACI’s Lewis mines relief sculpture for ideas about painting

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Photos by Brian Smith | Staff Photographer

Stanley Lewis has served as a visiting artist at Chautauqua Institution’s School of Art each year for the past 25 years, but he’s interested in far more than his own work.

At 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center, as part of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution Visual Arts Lecture Series, Lewis will show four or five landscapes he’s painted recently to give the audience an idea of his work. But he’s more interested in talking about the Elgin Marbles — a collection of Greek marble sculptures that were originally part of the Parthenon — which he saw at the British Museum for the first time in February.

“My lectures are a little strange,” Lewis said. “I like sharing art experiences I’ve had. Usually when somebody talks about an artwork, you’re able to get excited about it and seek it out.”

Lewis noticed that in a relief sculpture, just as in a painting, there is no true three-dimensional space. In one frieze from the Elgin Marbles, there is one arm that protrudes from the background like a real arm, but it’s pressed immediately against a running horse, something that wouldn’t be that close together in reality.

This management of space immediately grabbed his attention, and he wanted to figure out how the ancient Greeks did it.

“I was exhausted by the sculptures,” Lewis said. “I didn’t know how to look at them. I had to sit there and draw them to understand them.”

Painting deals with the rendering of three dimensions in a two-dimensional space, Lewis said, and he discovered that relief sculpture heightens that issue by flirting even more closely with the boundary between the dimensions. He wants to relate his technique as a landscape painter, which includes applying thick layers of paint that protrude from the canvas, to the techniques of relief sculptors. Lewis thinks painters can learn about the organization of space from these reliefs.

During his lecture, Lewis also plans to show 17th-century European paintings alongside details of the Elgin Marbles. The arrangement of figures around a table in one European painting reminded him of the arrangement of figures in some of the friezes he saw in the Marbles. Lewis was excited by the incredibly visible parallel in technique, and he looks forward to discussing that comparison with the audience.

Unlike most other visiting artists, who spend a week or two on the grounds, Lewis spends a month at Chautauqua each season. Every morning, he works with students from the School of Art; every afternoon, he paints by the stretch of lake between University Beach and the Miller Bell Tower.

“Twenty-five years is a long time to have been coming to Chautauqua,” Lewis said. “I always think, ‘This is it, I can’t do this again.’ But I do get wrapped up in it.”