Simon Lewty’s exhibition ‘Absorption’ at the Art First gallery in London leads the viewer into a similar frame of mind as that which must be required to make his sumptuous and intricate works. It is not possible to follow what is going on in these graphic yet painterly works and remain a detached onlooker. For this sophisticated and highly developed body of work is in some respects a return to the mixed illuminated practice of the scriptorium. The artists and scribes who worked with pen, brush and coloured inks on early European masterpieces such as the Book of Kells, figured their miraculous stories with real and imagined creatures, decorated botanical flourishes and other marginalia that were sometimes at odds with the sacred texts they were supposed to serve. Whereas Simon Lewty has developed aspects of that practice but turned it directly inward towards the world of dreams and imagination. His ‘pictures’ are written in the neat but fully elaborated secretarial hand of another age, in long lines too long to follow easily back across the paper when you come to the right hand margin. The text is a kind of adventure narrative, made of fragmented and rewoven experience, and the written surface is varied with coloured inks phased in and out, and numbers and capitalised words. Sheets of paper are pasted together in the larger frames and written over, leaving slight traces of the joins, rather like those just visible somatic traces in calf vellum. His previous work, which may be explored in The Self as a Stranger (Black Dog, 2012), includes creatures, figures, buildings and bits of landscape – but the more recent works in ‘Absorption’ are pure handwritten text.
The ‘picture’ is an almost impossible page of writing, and in order to see it fully and follow, you must read it as you would read an old-fashioned hand made legal document such as a house deed or will. And some of those documents also have lines that are too long to manage easily, that make you wish you could trace along with a fingertip as you go. In some of the larger works the text is translated into Tachygraphy, the long obsolete shorthand system invented by Thomas Shelton (1601-1650?) and most famously used by Samuel Pepys for his Diary. Lewty has taught himself this shorthand system and employs it to fabulous effect in his large scale translated works in luminous coloured ink symbols that look asemic to the viewer but cannot be so in this alien script. We get a ‘dual text’ effect above and below or side by side and move between the two blocks, complicating further the reading and viewing experience. Here an artist’s practice has joined writing back into drawing and fused them both into something unforeseen that gives maximum scope for the imagination. It is an art with a very high estimate and expectation of its audience and that is something sorely needed at the present time.Simon Lewty 'Absorption' 11 April -- 11 May at Art First, 21 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8DD; images copyright Simon Lewty 2013 are included here courtesy of Art First.