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Lewis Chamberlain - How We Used To See Things

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

Lewis Chamberlain
May 4, 2022

Lewis Chamberlain is a skilled draughtsman. Both technically, as evidenced through the sublime technique in his art, but also observable in his poetic depiction of staged domestic scenes, both of universal symbolism and personal relevance.

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In impeccable detail and with an incredible grasp on lighting and shade, Chamberlain most often uses his favourite medium - pencil - on his favourite surface - paper. What starts as a completely blank page, is built up layer by layer to create something textural and three dimensional, something that exists in front of us - a snapshot of a scene that’s like a little vignette of an odd film from a historical archive.


The interplay between light and dark, shade, shadow and sources of light, are so intensely complex in his drawings that it would be easy to assume Chamberlain is driven as much by creativity as he is by competition. Not against others, but himself. Each subsequent piece builds on the last. Throughout time, they have become increasingly flawlessly executed. More complex, yet more simple.


The phrase ‘glutton for punishment’ comes to mind with Chamberlain, whose attention to detail and drive to include additional elements - appearing simple to the eyes yet with each of these elements comes an entire shift in how he has to approach the drawing - make the works feel like some kind of puzzle. To first look at, they’re monochromatic scenes. Fairly simple. That is, if they were photographs.

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We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a pencil. A bit of lead. As he shows in some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ style photographs he posts on his social media, the artist is drawing what is in front of him, staged with a simple light source and visually constructed through the inclusion of various figurines and items to make a contrasting composition that includes a toy in it, but also the other parts of his set-up - like the cardboard box that houses them - breaking the fourth wall.


What I’m saying is, despite these scenes being meticulously staged, he’s not trying to trick his audience into thinking they’re something that they aren’t. These are clearly little sets, often with toys and other recognisable pieces. It’s an unusual and endearing subject matter, almost contradictory in our associations. Toys always remind us of simple times, like pencil drawings. But these toys, capturing in this way, recontextualise the subject into something altogether more serious, sometimes even veering on the sinister.

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That’s the thing with staged art like this, especially when lighting and shadow are such a crucial element. There’s always going to be something about them that feels foreboding. Cerebral horror, not your typical blood and guts. A sense that each image should be accompanied by an equally unsettling soundtrack - perhaps some bells, a detuned piano and the ambient sounds of youth.


In terms of recurring motifs, there’s Alice, who is possibly his daughter, and children’s toys, like Barbie dolls, all rendered in such detail as to be indistinguishable from the references (photographs or staged sets) used. The patience and time that goes into each piece can offer us an insight into the mind behind them. This is somebody who sees the world differently to us. He sees every detail, every blemish, every curve and every bit of contrast.


Lewis Chamberlain is no ordinary artist and his art is no ordinary art.

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