Shannon T Lewis: “I Could Stare at It For 20 Years…”

The artist takes five minutes out of her day to answer our eight questions.

Shannon T. Lewis by Evan Jenkins

Shannon T Lewis creates sumptuous paintings from sketches and collaged magazine clippings. They present fractured worlds, with human bodies slicing through interiors splashed with warm sunlight or draped peacefully across gilded wall mouldings. The mood in her works is calm and languid. She often features the Black female body as “lush and in service to herself”.

Lewis’ solo show, The Softness of Much Handled Things, is currently showing at Marine Ibrahim in Chicago. She notes the rough handling of people in the height of the pandemic (especially those who feature heavily in her work) and the swift pace and pressure of life before. These new works suggest the possibility of a slower, more considered existence on the other side.

Many of the figures in her paintings have their faces obscured or turned away. They aren’t here to perform for the viewer, instead finding peace in their own space. This also references the connection between the mind and body. “Where the mind has previously allowed harsh handling, the body often pays the price,” writes Negarra A Kudumu of the work in a special exhibition text. “But when the body has finally decided to free itself from its much handled past, the mind must eventually follow.”

To Be Seen Wanting & Ten Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2022, installation view

If you could save only one item from your studio, what would it be?

Magazine clippings are important to me. I use them in sketches and collages. I’ve carried some clippings around for years waiting for them to find their match, so it would be painful to have to rebuild my collection.

What was the last art material you bought to use in your work?

I bought some architectural magazines when I was in Chicago. I like to buy magazines from my trips to use in my collages. I feel this creates a type of algorithm or an amorphous narrative of the type of character I like to paint. Where would they go? Who would they be?

“I play playlists over and over again to keep the mood for certain pieces or a body of work”

What is your go-to song when you’re working in the studio?

I have a go-to playlist rather than specific songs. I play them over and over again to keep the mood for certain pieces or a body of work. I painted to the FKA Twigs album Magdalene for almost a year and a half. But especially the song Home with You. The playlists act as accessories to bring a certain mood.

Which single work of art would you choose to live alongside in your home?

I would choose Gustav Klimt’s work, Judith and the Head of Holofernes. It represents such a brutal topic but is painted with tenderness and softness, except for the face: Judith is almost in ecstasy. The head of Holofernes itself is out of the frame because it is not really about the act or the narrative, but is more about the interior, the emotional life of Judith in that moment. It is a shifting portrait on her face… I could stare at it for 20 years and get something different with each glance.

To Be Seen Wanting & Ten Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2022, detail

Top three art or photography books?

Paula Rego’s The Forgotten. I hardly get to see her work in person so any books with her work are important to me. In this book she’s in conversation with a couple of my favourite painters. She was so skilled at bringing you into her world; she was a master of narrative.

Also Richard Avedon’s Fashion Photography 1944–2000. There were so many beautiful silhouettes, not only the clothing but the poses of the models and the “design” of the image. I especially poured over his images of China Machado, Donyale Luna and Dorian Leigh.

And Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance by David A Bailey and Richard J Powell. This was my favourite book in high school. I didn’t know that it was from a show at the Hayward Gallery at the time or that I would end up in London going to the Hayward all the time. But I was quite obsessed with that book. Not only the images of work, but of the world it described. A whole group of creatives and intellectuals influencing each other’s works. It seemed fantastical to me.

“If I could set up a sleeping bag in the Musée d’Orsay, just live there and wander the halls, that would be great”

If money was no object, what would you most like to experiment with in your work?

I want to work with textiles and tapestries. It would be nice to use old weaving techniques and print on a very large scale. I’m very influenced by the Renaissance period and would like to see my images in altarpieces. I often imagine what it would look like to have glossy, shiny images in that setup.

To Be Seen Wanting & Ten Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2022, detail

Tell us a pet peeve of yours when it comes to the art world.

No seating for long video works.

What is your favourite gallery or museum space around the world?

Musée d’Orsay, hands down. If I could set up a sleeping bag in the corner and not draw attention to myself, but just live there and wander the halls, that would be great. The work is always stunning. I always walk away with so much inspiration in terms of what can be done with paint, light, fabric. From the moment you step into the building, the whole experience is romantic.

Images courtesy Mariane Ibrahim

Emily Steer is Elephant’s editor

Shannon T Lewis: The Softness of Much Handled Things is at Mariane Ibrahim in Chicago until 2 July

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