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INTRODUCTION

Dylan Lewis's reputation as one of the world's finest wildlife sculptors is already established, but does not end there. For him, wild animals and the wild areas in which they live are far more than elegant subjects of art; they are an essential part of human identity. Wildness and wilderness, he believes, are not only 'out there'; they exist within each one of us, if only we would realise it.

And I agree with him. We have forgotten that we are the human animal, biologically and psychologically bound to the earth and all living things, a part of the web of life. Today, it is hard to deny that we have lost our sense of equilibrium in nature. As a consequence, the wild areas and wild animals of the world have suffered. And so have we. Disconnected from that which is rich and raw and untamed in us, we have become a psychologically lonely and fragmented species.

Dylan's powerful and potentially disturbing works – humans with animal masks, some with claws, others with wings or horns – are all mirrors of the essential nakedness of the human-animal interface, and fitting reminders of where we have come from.

In keeping with the theme of the award-winning UNTAMED exhibition in Cape Town, 'Exploring the lost balance between humankind and nature', these works are intended as a statement of respect for our deep biological and psychological connection to the wild; a reminder that every human being is a living museum of our wild origins and our relationship to all living matter.

It has been a privilege to work with Dylan on the UNTAMED exhibitions. Out of a shared concern for the environmental issues of our time, it is our wish that we may add to the measured voice of biological science with the often immeasurable voice of the arts.

Ian McCallum
Psychiatrist, analytical psychologist, wilderness guide and poet

The wings and claws of the black eagle intergrated into this female figure symbolise wilderness and the wild, free aspects of human nature. More a fragment than a figure, its head and a section of wing have apparently broken away, recalling an ancient relic. The erotic sensuality of the female form contrasts with the eagle's sharp, deadly talons, expressing the paradoxical quality of nature, always balanced in its beauty and harshness.

Lewis initially creates most of his sculptures in clay in his studio before casting them into bronze. This soft, malleable material allows him to express feelings and ideas with an immediacy that very few other sculpting materials would allow, giving voice to emotions he finds hard to access consciously.

The lion-skull mask worn by this male figure represents the mythological 'king of the beasts', an ancient symbol of wilderness. With his face concealed, the figure may be wrestling with the hidden wild parts of his psyche, and, in a wider context, confronting the human destruction of the the natural environment. Compositionally connected to the earth, this figure lurches forward in a horizontal, animal-like motion, as if on three limbs.

Balanced on the point of a foot, this contorted male form wears the skull of the black wildebeest, a regal gnu of the Southern African plains. The figure's pent-up pose reflects the vital, explosive energy of tribal ritual dance, while the red patina speaks of the African earth and emotional intensity.

From a distance, Lewis's sculptures appear as literal renditions of human forms, but as one moves in closer, the surfaces become increasingly abstracted. Currents of energy and emotion, expressed through bold angular texture incised or moulded into the surface, may evoke the shapes of landscapes, twisted tree trunks or eroded rocks.

Movement radiates outwards in this sculpture, contrasting with many of Lewis's other male works in which the energy is turned inwards. Here, powerful musculature and the skull of a hartebeest, a large African antelope, represent athletic animal freedom. As one moves around this dancing, leaping piece, its limbs appear to interlock, creating a spiral effect.

Regarding the big cats as archetypal symbols of wilderness, Lewis explored the cat form extensively in his earlier work. Here, the leopard, his muse for decades, reappears in his human figure work, as a leopard-headed male form cradling a coiled female figure.

One arm of this twisted female form merges with the wing of an eagle, a symbol of wilderness and freedom. A duality arises: is she wounded or is she rising powerfully upwards? The composition's thrusting and opposing diagonals create a strong sense of movement.

Q&A WITH DYLAN LEWIS

South African sculptor Dylan Lewis lives on a farm in the Cape Winelands, and works from a studio in Simon's Town, a seaside village near Cape Town. This creative space is filled with works in progress, visual reference boards for his projects, natural artefacts such as animal skulls, gnarled branches and driftwood, and a quiver of surfboards for his afternoon surfing sessions at Cape Point, a wild stretch of nature reserve at the south-western tip of Africa.

Widely recognised as one of the world's foremost sculptors of the animal form, Lewis initially focused on the big cats as symbols of wilderness; in recent years, he has used the human figure to explore the Jungian notion of the 'wilderness within'. Continuing the theme of his acclaimed UNTAMED exhibition in Cape Town (2010-2012), these works explore two distinct narratives: the forgotten inner wild spaces of the human psyche, and the impact of this amnesia on the remaining wilderness areas of the planet.

Dylan, you grew up in an artistic family in Cape Town. Did your childhood pave the way for a career as a sculptor?

DL: I spent a great deal of time drawing and sketching as a child. My father was a sculptor, and both my mother and grandmother painted. I particularly remember my grandmother's studio at her home in the small Western Cape coastal town of Hermanus, where I used to spend summer holidays with my brother and sister. Her house was suffused with the scents of whisky, turpentine and the sea, and its walls were covered with vibrant Fauvist paintings of human figures.

As a family, we often spent school holidays visiting the game reserves of Southern Africa, and although we lived in an urban environment in Cape Town, we were on the fringes of the city, next to mountains, so I could quickly escape into wilderness. As a child, I was passionate about collecting bones, rocks and animal skulls; these natural objects, gathered during my frequent excursions into wild places and kept in my bedroom, held deep meaning for me. If you look around my studio today, you will see that nothing much has changed.

What lies behind the strong 'wild' theme in your work? You often link environmentalism and our internal human struggles with our wild sides.

DL: For most of my life, I've sought refuge in nature on a regular basis: this connection with 'wildness' leaves me feeling grounded and reconnected with my authentic, timeless inner self. I've always been intrigued as to why this is so: am I returning to an ancient, familiar place held in genetic memory? If so, what would happen to me if I could no longer access this place due to urban expansion and the inevitable destruction of natural habitat this brings?

Today, our lifestyles are often no longer meaningfully connected to the natural environment; socially we've moved away from a tribal life with rituals and rites of passage closely connected to the rhythms and cycles of nature. Consequently, many urban dwellers may feel profoundly disorientated and disconnected. In this state, it's easy to make choices that inadvertently destroy the things to which we are no longer connected. While quality of life for many has improved immeasurably in the past century, over half of the earth's natural wetlands have disappeared, along with large tracts of major ecosystems such as coral reefs and rain forests. At times I feel my work may just be a requiem to honour this profound loss.

Alongside the significance of the external wilderness, I'm interested in our inner wild spaces. As the father of five, I know young children are animal-like, living in the moment and expressing their every emotion without reserve. Most six-year-olds are talented artists! As we grow older, we're required to censor this wild inner life in order to function in social groups. This vital process comes with a risk: we may end up fencing out so much of our innate wildness that we lose touch with our authentic inner life, and instead live according to the ideals of others or society in general.

Those who know or collect your cat figures might wonder what made you shift to the human figure as a subject.

DL: Over the years, I've become less interested in the literal portrayal of the big cats that inhabit wilderness – the lion, leopard and cheetah – and increasingly interested in the emotional and symbolic impact wilderness has on me. As I started to engage with this theme in my sculpture, the cat form became limiting; I found it easier to explore complex psychological states through the medium of the human body, where the slightest change in a gesture can convey an entire range of emotions. Although the cat is no longer a primary focus in my work, I still return to it as a subject from time to time.

Some of your human forms incorporate aspects of animal anatomy. What do these body parts symbolise?

DL: These wings, claws, hooves and horns represent both our ancient genetic connection to the natural world and the wild parts of the human psyche. Many of the earliest works of art explored this theme, so I'm essentially reworking a very ancient story to express my personal experiences and points of view in the context of a modern urban life.

What's the meaning behind the animal masks worn by some of your figures?

DL: The wearing of a mask signals a changing or concealing of identity. In a poetic ritual, mask-wearing figures confront wild aspects of the psyche, as symbolised by particular animals. The skull's association with death is relevant here: if individuals are unable to bring these wild, free, authentic parts into their conscious lives, they run the risk of dying in a psychological sense. Seen more literally, the animal skull represents the modern human's often conflicted relationship with the natural world.

You choose to portray your human figures as nude. Why?

DL: I generally prefer to express emotion in my sculpture through the gestures of the body as opposed to the face, so the nude allows me the entire surface of the human form to articulate this, through gesture and muscular tension. Also, to me, the naked human form represents our original 'wild' state, which ties in with the theme of our relationship to wilderness.

Some are depicted in contorted poses, suggesting torment. Is this intentional?

DL: If there is torment, I see it as a vital struggle to balance opposite energies. For example, there's a natural force within me which seeks to modify my behaviour in order to gain the acceptance and support of the group on which I depend for survival. And there's an opposing force that seeks to give uncensored expression to my authentic voice, a voice which is sometimes at odds with the needs of the group. A similar tension of opposites manifests in my external world, between the incredible benefits of a modern lifestyle, and the destruction such a lifestyle has inadvertently wreaked on the natural world. To me, an ability to live with acceptance of the poignant paradoxes of the human story seems to be necessary for some degree of peace in this strange world.

You deliberately seem to emphasise musculature, particularly in your male figures.

DL: The powerful musculature isn't intended to reference superheroes or fascist images of strength and domination in which the battle is directed outwards, towards others; in these figures, the battle is directed inwards, and the physical strength alludes to wild animal energy.

Talk us through the process of making a sculpture.

DL: I first create an armature, or rigid internal support, from steel. It's usually shaped like a rudimentary skeleton, fixed in the shape of the sculpture I want to create. I then start building up the image in clay or plaster, beginning with the muscle and bone structure and working out towards the surface. This is the process of modelling, as opposed to carving, where a sculptor works a block of solid material like stone or wood from the outside in towards the final sculpture. I prefer modelling in clay as its fluidity and immediacy allow me to capture fleeting emotional states that I find hard to access in my conscious life. Clay is my voice. Once complete, each clay form is cast into bronze using the lost wax technique: molten metal is poured into a mould that has been created by means of a wax model.

The handprints and fingerprints on the surfaces of many of your works have almost become your trademark. Do they serve a particular purpose?

DL: These markings come from the initial modelling process, during which I create a sculpture from soft clay before moulding and casting it into a more durable medium such as bronze. I consciously choose to leave behind these earlier traces of the sculpting process in order to enhance the textural and visual vibrancy of the surface, and to convey a quality of immediacy. I often notice people pushing their own fingers into these imprints, perhaps as a way of connecting with a creative moment that has been frozen in time. In a conceptual sense, the markings may reference the handprints made on cave walls by early man as a means of recording human identity.

After leaving school, you failed the first year of a fine art course, then worked at a nature reserve and studied conservation. How did your career as an artist get going again?

DL: At age 25, faced with the choice of continuing a career in the natural sciences or re-engaging with art, I finally decided to take a series of part-time painting classes at the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town, and began my formal artistic career as a painter in 1990.

My subject matter at the time included the human figure, animals and landscapes. I worked in watercolour or oils after the manner of the French Impressionists, 'en plein air' or directly from nature, setting up my canvas outdoors. I was particularly fascinated by the way natural forms and landscapes were thrown into relief by the stark African light. Over time, I began using thicker paint, which brought a three-dimensional quality to my work. This early start in painting has had a strong influence on the surface textures of my sculptures.

Finally, what made you switch to sculpture?

DL: Although my father was a sculptor, I initially had no desire to follow in his footsteps. but my creative path changed dramatically after his tragic death at the age of 46. In the weeks after the event, while clearing out his studio, I started to explore sculpture, and within a couple of years it had become my primary medium. My father's interest in the natural world, expressed through sculptures of the bird form, was an important influence, especially in my early work, in which bird forms dominated. Although I worked in a very different technique to my father, his successful career as an artist gave me the confidence to forge ahead.

The artist in his studio surrounded by works in progress, and natural artefacts that inspire composition and surface texture in his sculpture.