Shapeshifting: an essay tracing Dylan Lewis's progression towards the human form, by Laura Twiggs

Although initially recognised primarily as an "animalier" (or, "maker of animals"), Lewis's most influential inspiration has been neither the large cats nor animals. Instead, it has always been his rich experience of wilderness areas -- to him, timeless places that suggest original and inner freedoms and all that is wild and untamed. Unless one bears this in mind, his recent exploration of the human form seems to suggest a radical shift in the sculptor's focus. However, the shift in his subject matter is not a departure in any true sense, but should rather be seen as a natural progression of both his artistic journey and his personal philosophy. Through the following carefully selected series of non-chronological works and installations, it becomes possible to trace the threads underlying Lewis's progression from wilderness, to animal, to fragmented animal forms, to the human/animal interface embodied in his latest human figure work. Where does animalkind end and humankind begin? What of the wild and the primitive within? In exploring these tantalising enigmas, Lewis searches wilderness, myth and ancient belief systems for inspiration, meaning and answers.

Wilderness as inspiration

From a family that is steeped in artistic tradition, with a great passion for nature, Dylan Lewis's love of the outdoors can be traced all the way back to his early childhood. Over many holidays to wilderness areas, the young Lewis began to collect those objects that initially fuelled his creativity: chunks of rock, bleached bones, animal skulls and fragments of wood. It was in chiseled canyons, on arid plains and in ancient rock shelters that he first experienced the sense of being 'at home', and it has never left him. To this day, Lewis's creative process starts outdoors, behind his Stellenbosch home, in the mountain range that forms the barrier between the Cape Peninsula and the interior of South Africa. It is this rugged, desolate stretch of wilderness, with its dramatic sculptural rock formations, that is the wellspring of his creative impulse, his primary inspiration and that which most embodies his artistic vision. Where once his subjects, and the large cat predators in particular, functioned as metaphors for literal tracts of wilderness such as this, his current exploration of the human figure delves also into the significance of wilderness to the human spirit and the idea of a more metaphorical and mythological notion of wilderness: the wilderness within. Cliff overhangs, arid earth forms and large natural outcroppings of rock are always as much his models as any flesh and blood subjects, as are the energetic, swirling patterns he sees in natural phenomena from cloud formations, to wind-swept grasslands, in twisted tree trunks and even embedded in his fingerprints.

The wild animal as metaphor

Dylan Lewis's large cat sculptures began as a direct and literal, visceral response to the wild animal within its natural environment. At the time, Lewis found there was no metaphor more capable of evoking the untamed freedom he experienced while being in the wilderness than the predator in whose habitat he found a sense of spiritual home and ease. In addition, he was concerned with embodying in his sculptures the literal aspects of uncensored physical attitudes and movements manifest in the wild beasts' bodies as they stretched, walked, groomed themselves, leapt, hunted and relaxed. He was fascinated by the raw and totally intact instinct behind these physical expressions, seeing them as symbolic and archetypal bodily responses -- the most extreme manifestations of intrinsic animal being.

In order to capture and communicate this immediate sense of palpable life, the cornerstone of Lewis's artistic ethos has always involved long hours of drawing and sketching from life, in front of the living, breathing subject as he observes, smells and senses it in its presence. It is while drawing that the artist makes sense of the form before him, imprinting that form onto his consciousness. For him, the act of drawing is also a meditation or focused observation, and he constantly returns to it while sculpting, filling books with sketches, notes and drawings. By referring to these in the solitude of his studio, he is able to reproduce physical form while exploring the more abstract, deeper meanings of his subjects. It is this process that is responsible for his remarkable ability to capture the spirit or essence of his subjects. Lewis's forms may be metaphors for landscape and wilderness, but they are also anatomically correct in every way and exhibit great and accurate detail in their musculature and composition. Over time, he has come to see his choice of the cat as unconsciously finding a fitting vehicle that remains deeply connected to the realm of myth, ancient spirituality and prehistory.

A departure from realism

Foreshadowing the sculptor's shift towards the human figure, this work breaks from realism and enters a more abstract, mythical realm. Leopard and Serpent depicts a scene that the sculptor had never witnessed and indeed, one that is exceedingly rare in nature. Had it been the sculptor's intention to realistically depict an actual kill of a serpent by a leopard, the sculpture would have been rendered more literally. The abstraction is particularly evident in the compositional elements of this piece, and there is also a discernible trace of the influence of sculptors Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) and Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916). Known as the first animalier ('maker of animals', an unflattering accolade at the time), Barye was a controversial figure whose Lion and Serpent created heated academic debate in Paris in 1832, primarily due to the elevated position it gave to the animal, as this was a treatment traditionally reserved for the human subject. Rembrandt Bugatti was also a sculptor of animals, but instead of depicting them realistically, he explored an abstract stylisation of form, striving to capture rhythms and harmony. The works of both of these sculptors struck a chord with Lewis, and Leopard and Serpent can be seen as the point at which his interest in the interface between human and animal began. Sphinx-like in composition, the sculpture's elevated display accentuates the heightened stature and dignity that Lewis now bestows on the wild animal. It can also be seen as an allegorical depiction of the artist's internal battles, drawing on mythological associations. A further acknowledgment of the budding animal/human connection are the artist's plainly visible hand prints among the signature surface textures: in several ways these can be seen as the nascent introduction of the human element in Lewis's work.

African Monolith, too, draws on myth and moves away from realism. In this somewhat uncharacteristic work, done in response to the indigenous San rock art that has captured his imagination since childhood, Lewis explores the idea of the hunted and the hunter in a three-dimensional context. On the surfaces of this monolith, images of hunting lions and buffaloes emerge, much as they do on the rock faces of prehistoric San caves. In a way, uncharacteristic though this sculpture might be, it holds the seed that was to germinate when the sculptor first began to explore the male figure. It was the San shamans who painted the animals depicted on cave walls, and to them, the images were not merely representations of life, but also a way of harnessing their very essence. In deep trance states, the act of painting involved opening portals to the spirit world, with the rock face operating as a veil between this world and the next. The animals function here as symbol and metaphor, emphasised by the non-literal treatment and their arrangement in this stylised, vertical format.

Exploring the vertical axis

In these busts the developing human treatment of the animal resides not so much in the sculptures themselves, but in Lewis's conception of how they were to be displayed and arranged. While they depict leopards as they literally stalk, crouch and move, the height and vertical nature of these works is more associated with human artistic representation than the horizontal one conventionally applied to the animal form. They are touchstones en route to Lewis's human figures, as well as custodians and guardians of wilderness. The length of the poles is very specific, and Lewis's intention was that the busts stand at the height of the average human. In addition, they were conceived as a group and as a tableau, creating a sense of community (even of a symposium or committee) that is diametrically opposed to the leopard's intrinsically solitary nature. The menace of the lethal predator takes on a human aspect. The line between animal instinct and human nature is increasingly blurred; indeed, it is hard to say on which Lewis is offering more comment: the animal or the human. In any event, his animals are increasingly assuming a status akin to that of mythological figures. Like the Ancient Greek drama's chorus, these busts witness, seemingly urging humankind to make the just decisions, but they do not intervene.

Evoking presence through absence

It is with the appearance of the first Fragments in 2000 that the shift towards the human is most apparent. Up until now, the human qualities of the sculptures were merely hinted at through heads and busts, but here they start to encompass the entire body, conjured by the removal of the most distinctive feline attributes, namely, the heads, tails and paws. The result is a disturbingly ambiguous anatomical manifestation that begins to blur the boundaries of human and animal as separate and exclusive entities, and an interplay between wilderness, rock and earth. The Fragments arose out of a series of drawings of a decapitated leopard carcass done in 1996. At the time, the headless carcass, initially frozen in a fetal position, reminded Lewis of a human, its limbs curled inwards as if in an attempted gesture of desperate and futile attempt self protection. As it thawed, he was even more struck by the human quality of the feline's anatomy. Lewis found this experience extremely moving, and began to reconsider the large cat predators as a metaphor for wild strength, power and conscienceless violence. The animal now begins to be seen as vulnerable, even poignant. If the earlier healthy and functioning animal represents those aspects that were instinctual, wild and free, then these Fragments speak of the consequences of taming and destroying our animal connection to the senses. They function as warnings of not only the external consequences of failing to respect our environment, but also as psychic warnings of what happens to humans when we lose touch with the wild, instinctive aspects of our own nature.

The female human figure emerges

Having spent more than a decade using the animal form as a metaphor for wilderness, Lewis began to find this vehicle of expression more and more limiting. He now wished to explore the idea of wilderness at a more personal and philosophical level, and searched for a fresh signifier that could carry new conceptual meanings. Given the enormous impact that the decapitated frozen leopard carcass had had on Lewis, it is unsurprising that its influence extended to his first exploration of the human figure. It was its fragile, mortal qualities that attracted his focus, particularly the aspect of the once-powerful mammal's overwhelming vulnerability: the sense of psychic pain, grief, loss and unease it conveyed that had so affected him. Lewis first began to explore the female form in drawing, once again turning to the living model, studying anatomy and drawing and re-drawing from life. Only by first fully immersing himself in his subject is Lewis able to translate his vision into sculpture, and now that vision had shifted, just as he himself had shifted.

Lewis's human figures represent an interface between animal and human rather than simple humankind, and continue to speak of wilderness. They are an attempt to explore visually the integration of all that is wild and free and to reconcile the ideas of inner and outer wilderness, as well as being vehicles through which to probe the fundamental importance of wilderness to the human psyche. The hybrid nature of Lewis's human figures is subtly evident in disguised animal and earthly attributes: there's a flattened feline leg, for example, or feline power in the shoulder of a reposed figure; rock-like projections around certain figures suggest wilderness in a textural sense; a hand is more paw or claw than human; shapes are those of landscape silhouettes. The result is somewhat uncanny: these figures are not literal amalgams; they are figures that are neither fully human nor dramatically animal -- slippery signifiers that defy simple categorisation and suggest interdependence, intrinsic interconnectivity and a disquieting blurring of natures.

The male figure as both return and progression

Within his body of work Lewis's female figures thus far represent a relatively quiet interlude, characterised by softer and more subtle surface textures than are evident in the animal works that prefigured them and those of his most recent works: a dynamic interpretation of the male form. The male figure has offered Lewis the opportunity to return to his paramount sculptural language, and allowed him to again deal with the powerful musculature, dramatic movement and vitality of his later animal subjects. Experiencing acute personal resonance with his new subject, he has launched himself into a passionate exploration of the integration of human, animal and earth, held together by ancient animistic belief, trance and ritual.

These male figures conjure the shaman, the conveyor of truths, but they are firmly grounded in powerful physicality. With musculature and inherent strength that is closer in nature to his previous animal subjects than his female figures, Lewis's male forms are in direct association with the animal spirit and life force embodied in the animal skull masks they wear. (Animal skulls have been an important part of human ritual for over 50 000 years, embodying the notion of the protection of life. The history of animal masks stretches back that long, too, with masks having remained an integral part of humankind's search for macro- and micro- cosmos.) These men thus inhabit a mythical realm, losing their human identities in ritualised bodily attitudes that demonstrate their subservience to the personage of their masks, and in doing so, they temporarily become more than "man". The immortal face of the skull is juxtaposed with temporal flesh and blood, drawing together the life and death forces of the natural world. In becoming one with their animal masks and features, Lewis's humans fleetingly reconnect with that which humankind lost in expelling our wild nature from our essential selves in order to define ourselves as "human". The transformation is a connection with and celebration of the vital energy, life force and spirit of all that is truly "wild". Lewis does not purport to offer any solutions, and nor does he claim to hold any answers. He offers an open exploration of the stirring thought that the human and animal journey are one. He shares his sense of what has been lost as mankind has increasingly denied our wild origins, and finally, celebrates the possibility that the primordial bond between humankind, animal and earth that exists in consciousness is within reach, and waiting to be reclaimed.