XTRA No. 107, August 26, 1988 ON THE WALLS

Hard questions: Painter Joe Lewis has gone from flip quips to rough stuff: by Andrew McPhail

Scrambled words; Joe Lewis approaches written text the way most gay people approach the predominantly straight world; he uses what he can and makes up the rest as he goes.

“They say I can’t, so I paint.” That’s the attitude of defiance adopted by artist and cultural worker Joe Lewis. And some people have said he can’t particularly about a group of paintings exhibited at the Trent Student Union in Peterborough. They were deemed obscene and provoked a flurry of letters to the editor and a homophobic paranoid critique” in the university community newspaper. Much of the notoriety revolved around the talking cunt.

The works in question are on view at the Rainbow Room. Expecting obscenity, one’s first impression is of a cartoon. The works are roughly two feet by two feet and painted on brown wrapping paper with the energy and bravado that revived the Toronto painting scene a decade ago. Familiar cultural icons such as a television, Miss America and Barbie drip banality in these paintings. They resemble a comic strip from hell, satirizing our worst consumerist


The talking cunt is actually a painting of a female torso on a TV screen in a middle-class living room, with a carefully labelled “living room rug.” The torso is cut off at the hips by the bottom of the screen and a cartoon balloon issues from a small truncated patch of pubic hair. The obscenity is the one we see every time we switch on reruns of The Price is Right, the cunt merrily shrieking “Hi folks! Buy this now!” To Lewis, nothing is sacred.

In another painting, Ronnie R is a fashion designer from DC, his latest creation a dress with a convenient target area at the crotch marked “Drop bomb here.” Barbie is the golden-haired Demeter rescuing her trim-ankle(d) daughter, Persephone, who looks more like Gumby than the Olympian beauty that a god of the underworld would kill for. Lewis depicts our cultural vacuity with humour in a painting style that’s colourful, empty and funny. As in cartoons, text figures prominently in these paintings. Captions, titles and labels are scrawled like graffiti across each work often as one-liners or punch lines.

Lewis’s interest in working visually with text stems partly from his dyslexia. Words scramble for Joe. In his paintings he treats words as images; inconsiderate of the conformity language is usually assigned. Lewis approaches written text the way most gay people approach the predominantly straight world; he uses what he can and makes up the rest as he goes. This is not to say that works are illegible or disordered, but that they are assigned an added visual weight, equal to the stylization of the images. The result is a painting that looks like a cartoon.

The images themselves function as a sort of text. Each carries its pre scribed cultural meaning. But imagine each word and each

 word and each image form a plane and Joe Lewis is the pilot. He wants to crash and burn, to disorder our usual understanding of exactly who the real Barbie is.

The debate at Trent over the alleged obscenity of his work finally resulted in his having to steal the paintings back from the student union. The Trent incident took place two years ago. Since then, Lewis moved to Ottawa and stopped painting for 18 months.

Today he’s in a studio in Toronto and getting back onto canvas. He paints from a new edge now. The cartoon figures are being subsumed into a more painterly world. The new works have more textural surface interest and are coming from somewhere closer to Joe’s gut The flip satire of the talking cunt has been replaced by a more earnest questioning and a more serious and expressive painting style. In one wrenchingly violent piece, a male head confronts a faded nude figure standing behind an empty chair and shouts “Why did you the?”

Lewis is asking harder questions and it will be interesting to see what answers he comes up with.

Andrew McPhail




 “Hi folks! Buy this now!” the alleged obscene painting bought by the Trent Woman’s Centre in 1986 and subsequently hung in the Trent Student Union Offices in 1987 (facsimile of photograph by Jake Baken)   

Myth & Object: An Exhibition of Recent Works by Joe Lewis.  August- Sep 3./1988  at The Rainbow Room, 1060 Yonge. 967-1851.

I didn’t Know, acrylic on tile board 4' x 3'


"Life styles of the right, wrong: Tory Brand", mixed media on cotton ploy, 78" X 61" 1987

"Why / Boo", acrylic on cardboard, 31.25" X 41.25" 1988

"Handshake", acrylic on canvas, #1 , 24" X 48" #2 15" X 48" , 1988 in private collection 


Because He Has a Past, acrylic on canvas, 29" X 52", 1988


"first time" mixed media on cardboard, 31" X 41", 1988


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