Man of sorrows

In the twelfth of his ‘longer looks’ at individual artworks, Justin Paton finds unexpected glory in a portrait of a personal disaster by Richard Lewer.

I remember the itch of wool on the skin. I remember hand-knitted jerseys worn without irony. I remember the chunky weight of the first push-button phones. I remember that shade of green plastic. And, since I’m about the same age as Richard Lewer, I remember how phone calls kept you tethered—how you had to clear the room or stretch the cord somewhere private if you wanted to talk about something personal.

What I don’t remember, since I’m not Richard Lewer, is receiving “a phone call from my first real girlfriend telling me she was in love with someone else and we were no longer going out …” Nor do I remember, as the very long title of this painting continues, “grabbing my Walkman, running to the car, and driving down the road listening to Tracy Chapman full bore, crying so hard.” That maudlin memory (and its pitch-perfect soundtrack) are his and his alone.

But this is where Lewer’s gift as a painter of people and their vulnerabilities kicks in. For though the story of being “officially dumped” is his in its specifics, it is his odd and endearing talent as an artist to pass the pain on to us in useful form—softening its sting yet retaining enough pathos for us to locate our own past woes and embarrassments within it. This is a portrait of the artist as a crumpled young man and, even if you’re uncrumpled, you’ll empathise.

The empathy comes, in this painting about past feelings, from the ‘touchy-feely’ qualities of the paintwork—the way Lewer, with stiff yet subtle strokes, reconstitutes the long-lost moment. The hunch of his shoulders suggests sobs starting to mount. His face is smeary with emotion. And his fingers splay feebly over his eyes, as if to block the news that’s incoming.

Best of all, for me, in this memory-painting, is the strange flaking and staining of the background. The room itself is suffering from emotional dandruff. A leech of paint sniffs Richard’s shoulder. Part of breaking up, when it first happens, is that callow sense of solitary agony. Love is everywhere, but surely no one in the universe has suffered like you are suffering.

Lewer, a Kiwi long based in Melbourne, has a rich back catalogue of mishaps and mortifications. This painting is one of 33 in a series called ‘Richard’s Disasters’, which does for workaday humiliation what Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series did for outlaw defiance.

With its inventory of incidents including magpie attacks, sexual sprains, burst water mains, bed-wetting, spider bites, sin-binning and late-in-life circumcision (sample title: “On a day out in Margaret River with my in-laws, I hooked a nine-year-old girl standing 30 metres away on the timber jetty at Gnarabup beach“), the series is a deeply charming act of over-sharing. My initial response to it was twofold: first, laughter; then an impulse to contact Richard and see if he was OK. 

But there is, I think, a larger reason that Lewer’s ‘Disasters’ resonate today. It’s the tender-funny way they revere imperfection in an age obsessed by its opposite. Think of social media with its many millions of constantly updated and carefully ‘curated’ selves, humble-bragging about how #blessed they feel to be sharing with you their ‘content’. By contrast, I love Lewer’s enlistment of painting as a scruffier social medium—one dedicated to the enshrinement of mundane moments of bad luck, balding, needless fear, minor foolishness and glum nostalgia.

‘Enshrinement’ may seem an odd word to use in such a context. But there is something votive, a sense of offerings being made, in the series as it accumulates. Life, as Lewer paints it, is a series of trials by embarrassment, and by painting these moments, feeling his way back into them, he makes a kind of peace with his past selves. The smallness and density of these paintings on metal panels has me thinking of medieval icons, those portable paintings that reminded their owners of higher powers at work in their lives.

And, turning back now to the break-up painting opposite, we notice something further. Squint and Richard in his chair could be a figure in an altarpiece. His jersey becomes a garment of heavenly blue, with its little dance of stars and crucifixions. And the rich patterned red of the chair behind it becomes a regal cape or embroidered raiment. Can we even see, in his helmet of orange hair, a hint of a hood or saintly halo?

It’s the gentlest of suggestions—not a ‘reference’, just a hint. But it tips the tone of the painting decisively towards compassion and humour. What would you give to be able to go back to your younger self to advise them in their dramas and trials? Lewer goes back through the art of painting, and doesn’t spare us the pink-faced misery of the moment. But he’s also wise and kind enough to give the just-dumped Richard some glory amidst his disaster.

More from Issue °190, Autumn 2021


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