‘It’s a Call to Action’: Why Artist Tony Lewis Is Battling the Legacy of William F. Buckley, the Godfather of American Conservatism
In his latest show, the artist expands the definition of drawing and tackles a heady subject.
By: Janelle Zara
Words are the primary source materials for artist Tony Lewis’s drawings.
For the past decade, the Chicago-based artist has appropriated texts from a range of sources—from the 1991 bestseller Life’s Little Instruction Book to Calvin and Hobbes comic strips—to create a distinct type of visual poetry. Rendered in colored pencil and graphite powder, his drawings recontextualize meaning and create a new language with which to discuss power structures and race.
For “Charlatan and Ultimately A Boring Man,” Lewis’s second solo exhibition at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, the word “boring” recurs throughout the main gallery, reduced to its shorthand notation, a swooping line followed by a dot. The mark has been inflated, rotated, and repeated, and the resulting voluminous forms, rendered in black, white, and red colored pencil, are tangled together in an almost sculptural composition on paper, layered with the fine patina of graphite powder.
“One of the reasons why I love stenography is that it opens up a world of abstraction,” Lewis says of the loose, gestural quality of stenographic marks. “It’s a free flowing movement of my body—a word is a series of loops, of stretching my arm as long as I can. I’m thinking less about the meaning of the word and more about the meaning of making a gesture.”
Lewis extracted the show’s title from a landmark 1965 debate at Cambridge University between venerated author and activist James Baldwin and the writer and Goldwater-era father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley. Baldwin’s argument—that “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro”—won the approval of their audience at the Cambridge Union Society, who voted in Baldwin’s favor, 544 to 164.
But it was actually Buckley who uttered the phrase that resounded with Lewis: “There is no instant cure for the race problem in America, and anyone who tells you that there is… is a charlatan and ultimately a boring man.” In the galleries, Buckley’s words, not Baldwin’s, resound.
The potency and poeticism of Baldwin’s arguments have endured as a pivotal perspective on the discourse of American racism and privilege, appearing as the inspiration for Hilton Als’s recent exhibition about Baldwin at David Zwirner. Lewis, however, made the decision to lean into Buckley’s inherently racist rhetoric, rather than creating a more comfortable show reaffirming Baldwin’s greatness. His decision was based on Baldwin’s own words: “What is dangerous here is a turning away from […] anything any white American says.”
“To me, it’s a call to action, to listen, to face, and sort of analyze,” Lewis says. “To me, it’s permission not to look away.”
What he describes as his “unhealthy relationship” with Buckley’s rebuttal dates back to 2011, when this body of work debuted at the artist-run Autumn Space in Chicago. “It’s not that there’s value to what he’s saying, but Buckley gives me something to work against. What’s happening visually, linguistically, in his cadence, his accents—all that stuff to me is up for grabs.”
To dissect Buckley’s thinly supported (but insidiously slick) debate strategy, Lewis has projected footage of his rebuttal on a wall where he’s drawn a djembe. The combination of drawing and video serves to highlight the awkwardness of Buckley’s mannerisms, as his spread fingers appear to be ineptly slapping a drum.
Lewis also printed stills of Buckley’s face, contorted in unflattering poses, on paper that has been creased and smudged with graphite powder so the writer is almost unrecognizable. Lewis’s method of deconstruction separates image from movement, word choice from sound, content from gesture, key elements that together form the framework of Buckley’s performance, but fall apart in isolation.
Lewis stretches the definition of drawing beyond the strict action of mark-making on paper, incorporating actions of the body into his language of abstraction. Viewers at the initial Autumn Space show walked on swaths of graphite-covered paper on the floor, which is being shown here as what he calls a floor drawing.
A new drawing—a thick black line made from graphite-coated rubber bands stretched between a narrow matrix of screws, which altogether spans an entire gallery wall—begins as a vertical line and loops to become horizontal, then flicks suddenly in the opposite direction. It says “James,” with two dashes at the end indicating its capitalization. A halo of graphite powder on the pristine white wall smudges the edges. Drawing becomes a physical and poetic exercise, where a mark denotes a thousand words.