As I walked into the Bindery Projects last Saturday night, I nearly stumbled over a woman hunched at the door, putting blue booties over her shoes. It was the opening of “48: Keep a tight rein on your temper,” an exhibition of three large-scale graphite drawings by Chicago-based artist Tony Lewis; it's his first Twin Cities show.
Once her shoes were covered, the woman headed into the gallery space around the corner, where other bootie-clad people were congregating on and around an enormous, crumpled mass of charcoal gray paper spread across the floor. The front gallery featured a single large drawing mounted on the wall. Graphite on dishwater-colored paper, the work is smudged all over with smeary black fingerprints and marked by little rips and haphazardly mended tears; a couple of shoe prints are visible in one corner. A thickly drawn, undulating line bisects the center of the drawing. A lateral sweep of the curve runs through the letters “L O,” then the line snakes back and down to the left to cut through “O L.” There are no didactic plaques, no evident title. I suspect the letters are some inverted, fragmented wordplay on “color,” but I can’t be sure.
Stretched across the wall of the main gallery is the exhibition’s most arresting piece, the titular (and only titled) work of the show: “48: Keep a tight rein on your temper.” That phrase is spelled out in carefully wrought serif font by way of black rubber bands stretched tightly across nails which have been pounded into the gallery wall; graphite smudges and fingerprints surround the words. Lewis appropriated the text – it’s an aphorism from H. Jackson Brown, Jr.’s bestselling 2000 gift book, “Life’s Little Instruction Book.” Removed from that glib, feel-good context, though, as it’s written here the phrase is unsettling, even a bit threatening: loop upon loop of black rubber bands, stretched taut around the nails, the manic smudging all around betray a tension at odds with the elegant, old-school propriety of the font. There’s a palpable but suppressed violence in the look of the work – an ironic comment on the express directive of the text, for sure.
The largest drawing of the three, the one dominating the floor of the main gallery, seems both monumental and mundane. It looks like nothing so much as a giant, nearly-black tarp. The artist explains the materials and process behind its creation: he covered the large swath of paper in layers of tape and primed the surface; then he thickly spread loose graphite powder over the prepared paper. The finished surface is matte and opaque, uniformly covered with graphite but not quite fixed in place; touch it, and your finger comes away smeared with charcoal.
For this showing of the work, he’s inviting gallery visitors to walk across the drawing, to investigate it up close. Lewis says the resulting tears and rips will add life to the piece, contribute to its evolution. As people walk from that drawing to the floor beside it, their blue-bootied feet leave dusty graphite traces behind, around the piece; you can see marks, here and there, in the rest of the gallery spaces too, like threads of conversation carried from Lewis’s work, room to room and beyond, to cold night outside.
“48: Keep a tight rein on your temper” by Tony Lewis will be on view at the artist-run exhibition space, The Bindery Projects, on the 4th floor at 708 Vandalia Ave. in St. Paul. The gallery is open Mondays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and by appointment. Find more on the exhibition’s Facebook event listing and on the gallery’s website.