No Place Like Home
17th September – 6th November 2021 11- 5pm
Exhibition Essay by Will Ballantyne-Reid: please click here
Block 336 presented No Place Like Home, an exhibition of new paintings by the London-based artist, Dale Lewis, that responds to his experience of Covid-19. Depicting a host of characters from London’s lesser and well-known gay and LGBTQ+ scenes, from the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to Wanstead Flats, these new paintings reflect on how social distancing and enforced segregation impacts on the shared experiences of intimacy, pleasure, solidarity and loss.
Made throughout 2020 and 2021 the works represent a singular vision of the artist’s life in and out of lockdown and highlight his experience of the intense isolation, tragedy and absurdity of Covid’s cruel consequences. Breaking away from the transcription of art historical compositions, a device that has characterised much of his practice to date, many of these new works respond directly and with brutal honesty to a real spectacle he has witnessed or an actual event that has taken place.
In Flip Flop for example, we see a scantily clad Kali-esque figure wielding an axe over a man’s exploding head. Snow falls all around whilst red-eyed Saharan geese stand about looking cold and perplexed. The inspiration for this particular painting derived not from a dream or the artist’s imagination, nor from a depiction of a Hindu deity as we might expect, but from seeing a woman in her underwear, chopping wood outside her river boat in the middle of winter in Hackney Wick. Her physical strength and the force of her defiance against the elements leaving a lasting impression on the artist.
One of the tragic outcomes of Covid-19 is the extent to which it has further fragmented our society, increased the marginalsation of its underrepresented and undercared for groups and hit them hardest. Much of Dale’s recent work comments on how the LGBTQ+ communities have both suffered from and adapted to this virus’ impact. In Darkest Before Dawn, seven figures form a circle in what is a reference to Matisse’s joyful Dance. But here, the scene has been infiltrated by others and depicts a violent mugging in which Lewis and his boyfriend were attacked coming out of a Soho nightclub in the early hours, his Grandfather’s Rolex watch torn from his wrist and taken away. Here Matisse’s circle of life is substituted with a vicious cycle of homophobic hatred and fear.
Lending its title to the name of the exhibition, the painting No Place Like Home invites us to attend the funeral of one of Lewis’ family friends, a queer NHS nurse who contracted Covid-19 and tragically died. In this frieze-like painting, his coffin is surrounded by a priest, an undertaker and mourners from the UK and overseas who are divided by a multi-channel and goggle-eyed Zoom meeting that was used to beam back images of the event live to his family overseas. His bejewelled ruby slippers poke out from under a rainbow flag whilst animal daemons haunt the scene.
One of the distinctive aspects of the exhibition at Block 336 is its use of subdued lighting, how this gently illuminates each painting’s singular significance and draws out the shadows of their impasto surfaces. The artist has described how he experiences viewing paintings in the cold bright white light of the normal gallery setting being a bit like a trip to the dentist or having sex with the lights on; in No Place Like Home the viewer is given permission to participate in each scene and perform their own role within the unfolding erotic and tragic dramas of the figures depicted.
Dale Lewis has said that whilst every person, animal or thing in his paintings has their own particular story and singular existence, he can identify an element of himself in all of them. Every junky, bully, victim, hero, beauty or beast, is simultaneously someone else and him. Their experiences are witnessed and observed, but also felt as powerfully and intimately as his own. The deeply empathic qualities of these new works reveal how the artist has been profoundly affected by the events of the last two years and just how important other people are to his well-being and survival. Whether we are good, bad or anything in between, No Place Like Home is a timely reminder of just how much we mean to one another.