Peter Wayne Lewis: ‘There is a rhythm in my work’

The artist and educator about art, quantum physics, Buddhist philosophy and avant-garde jazz

Jamaica-born artist and educator Peter Wayne Lewis tells Time Out about the relationship between musical improvisation, theoretical physics, deep art history and the ‘synchronicity of design’ at play in his abstract painting suites




What do quantum physics, dissonant jazz, Buddhist philosophy and abstract painting have in common? The work of Peter Wayne Lewis, if nothing else.


Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1953, Lewis soaked in the island nation’s rich artistic and musical culture before moving to the United States in 1962. After a 30-year painting career in California, Lewis relocated to New York and started teaching in Boston, where he is currently a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). He’s maintained a Beijing studio since 2006, attracted here partially by MassArt’s long-running exchange programmes with Tsinghua University and the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), and partially due to an affinity with Chinese minority culture. ‘In 1854, 20,000 Hakka people migrated to Jamaica. This is a part of what Jamaica is, and a part of my cultural conditioning,’ says Wayne Lewis.


An intellectual and spiritual omnivore, Lewis draws inspiration from a panoply of sources, including avant-garde jazz (his father was a jazz pianist), quantum physics and Eastern religious philosophy. Though Roman Catholic by faith, he says, ‘In reality I question all things, and do not buy into any dogma.’ Over the course of our interview, he shares personally influential quotations from sources as ancient as the Hindu Vedas and the Daodejing, and as current as theories by contemporary physicists Alan Guth and Jacob Bekenstein.


Grid close-up


Lewis is part of a dual exhibition currently on view at the UCCA, displaying alongside the late painter Frederick J Brown. A friend of over 20 years who shared Lewis’ twin interests in abstract music and art, Brown collaborated with jazz greats Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk from his New York loft in the 1970s and ’80s.


We talk with Lewis about the order hiding in apparently empty space, and how this hidden order can be theorised in science and ultimately communicated through the arts.


What attracted you to China initially?

It’s one of the longest-living cultures in human history. To experience it completely one needs to be on the ground and feel the texture and light and atmosphere of the place. Another issue is that I’m a professor at MassArt in Boston, and we have had an exchange program with Tsinghua and CAFA for many years. I had the good fortune to meet one of the world’s great artists, Xiu Bing, at MassArt in 1996. This is a testament to the importance of exchanging professors and artists in terms of cultural production and its impact on the world.


What about working in Beijing has fuelled your creative process? How have you seen the city change in the decade you’ve been coming here?

It’s been amazing to see the architecture of Beijing evolve and shift in such a dramatic way over the years. Galleries and studios change frequently, but this is a testament to the vitality of the place. It’s fascinating to me to work here, not speaking the language, but communicating gesturally to the community. Painting is and always will be a visual experience. I’m very interested in this mode of communication.


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Music has exerted great influence on your work. Do you have any background as a musician?

There is a rhythm in my work, which comes from a great passion for music. This was instilled in me by my father, Herman B Lewis, who was a jazz pianist. I grew up listening to all the great jazz musicians, as well as European Classical, African, Caribbean, Japanese and Chinese music. I wanted to be a musician, but I didn’t have that gift.


The two suites in your current UCCA exhibit namecheck jazz composer Thelonious Monk, famous for his improvisational style and incorporation of dissonance. What about his music inspires you?

I’m interested in dissonance in musical structures, as well as in the pictorial arts, with the concept of space and what is contained in it. Part of the genius of Miles Davis is the silence in between the notes of his music. We wait in anticipation for the next note while our minds fill in the void, creating a relationship with the listener, or the spectator in paintings.


The ‘Buddha Plays Monk’ suite refers to the spiritual Buddha, who, like Monk, reimagined how the world could be by inventing different time structures. Jazz is based on standard 4/4 time, which Monk rendered obsolete. The other suite, ‘Monk Time’, functions as a symphonic suite based on the music of Monk and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.


You have also expressed an interest in theoretical physics. How are abstract scientific ideas expressed in your work?

I am not literally trying to make paintings that specifically create a didactic representation of any of the issues surrounding theoretical physics, but I constantly refer to its building blocks: order, chaos, gravity, speed, time, light and the modulation of space.


The evolution of human consciousness is also a fascination to me. In terms of coming to any understanding, one must examine the interior life of the self, which is what I do as a painter. The physical representations are symbolically representing interior life and an attempt to secure knowledge that can be shared with a community.


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Your two UCCA suites are hung in 5 x 3 grids. Is there a specific logic to this?

This was a deliberate attempt at creating a work of art that reads visually as a symphony of colour, light [and] differing time signatures. The modulation of the form of the paintings is done in a way where there are quiet passages and more aggressive areas, all working together in synchronicity, or harmony of design.


I am deliberately trying to break the rhythm of the spectators’ expectations and deliver a new order of understanding. The grid appearance came into being with our ancient ancestors in South Africa, Australia and France, 30 to 44 thousand years ago. My usage refers to this systemic form as a language, not the Western canon of abstract painting that has dominated the past 100 years.


You’re exhibiting alongside the late African-American painter Frederick J Brown. What was your relationship with him?

Frederick J Brown was a friend of mine whom I had known for over 20 years. I became acquainted with his work while I was a painter in California. I felt it was my duty to remind Beijing and China about what this great artist had done, being the first American to be granted the privilege of showing in what is now known as the National Museum of China in 1988. Both of our exhibitions are a gift to the artistic community of Beijing.


I hope that many people will get a chance to see the show, which represents a continuation of cultural exchange started by Fred in 1988, and my work continuing in the same tradition. I thank the administration of the UCCA, its staff and personnel for granting me the honour of this show.

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