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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.