Andrew Lyght: Second Nature
On ViewAnna Zorina Gallery
September 10 – October 24, 2020
I first met Andrew Lyght when he arrived in New York in the mid-seventies. He could scarcely speak, he was so shy. He had just arrived in the US from Canada, where he had been living, when filmmaker Emile de Antonio introduced the reticent young artist to me and Frank Stella. He was holding a knapsack that wrapped up rusty iron workman’s tools. It looked to be his only possession. Spread out on the floor, the well-worn cloth became the ground for the outlines of the images that had rusted into it. From that early meeting some 40 years ago, I have followed Lyght’s progress as the work became more complex and refined, fusing painting, drawing, and architecture.
Lyght was born in tropical British Guiana, now independent Guyana, and is now an American citizen who has lived in the US most of his life. This dual heritage allows him to absorb the traditions of both countries. His birthplace, British Guiana, on the East coast of South America is a small multicultural nation. From the beginning, his artistic ambition has been borderless, as has been his craving for education. Determined to learn from many traditions largely through acute observation during his travels, it is clear that Lyght absorbed and synthesized the principles of many cultures into his practice.
From Guyana he moved to Montreal, Canada, then to Brooklyn, New York, then to Europe, and now, finally, to Kingston, New York on the border of the Hudson River where he lives in a mid-19th century brick warehouse he rebuilt into an elegant home and studio. Lyght has written about his unique experience as the product of the mixture of two totally opposing cultures: “Growing up by the sea in Guyana, South America, I often wondered what happened where water and sky meet at the horizon line, creating a sense of limitless distance. To this day, I remain intrigued by this enigmatic phenomenon and its resemblance to pictorial space. It is this fascination that has driven my visual inquiry and practice for more than 40 years.”
During this time of growth and experimentation, Lyght has deconstructed, altered, and reconstructed the picture plane, the frame, and the compositional elements within that frame. He does this in order to communicate the dynamic nature of pictorial space, which is not flat as Clement Greenberg insisted, but multidimensional given the artist’s manipulation. Lyght explains how he has “grappled with the spatial significance of line, plane, volume, and color, placing the viewer within that pictorial space.”
Over the course of his long career, Lyght has tended to make related groups of works. Each new body of work explores the limits of the eye by creating an art form that appears to have no fixed boundaries. His training under Guyana’s most famous artist, Edward R. Burrowes, prepared him for further development of his concept of color and space. Once he decided to settle in New York, he began to visit all the museums and galleries. He decided he wanted above all to live in New York. Antonio persuaded art dealer Leo Castelli to sponsor Lyght for a green card. He settled into a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where he worked for over two decades before real estate speculators evicted him from his loft. After a long search, he found an abandoned brick warehouse in Kingston, New York which he spent decades transforming into a beautiful home and studio on the banks of the Hudson River.
Lyght’s current exhibition, Second Nature, at Anna Zorina Gallery in Manhattan presents a sampling of work created from the early 1990s to August of this year. Featured prominently in the main gallery are a number of Lyght’s works that recall the simple horizontal/vertical post-and-lintel system used in domestic architecture throughout Guyana’s history. Architectural lines, proportions, and building materials inform such multimedia constructions as seen in his “Industrial Painting/Sheathing” series from the mid-90s. These works feature glyph-inspired drawings on steel and framed with lintel.
Lyght transforms these functional objects into graceful constructions. Precisely conceived, this is clearly work that is intellectual while referring to industrial structures. This capacity to synthesize opposites is one of the distinctions of his entirely original style. Spotlighted in the main gallery and the centerpiece of his show, a configuration of pieces that includes Third Eye Markings A-2890 (1995–96), a huge 55-gallon steel drum covered with elegant filigree-like calligraphy, is suspended perpendicularly on the wall at a height just out of reach of the viewer reveals the emptiness and receptiveness of the container. Erected above an open square piece, Industrial Painting/Sheathing 0486DF (1994–1995), overlooks viewers as they enter and move around the main gallery space, and is positioned directly across from another 55-gallon steel drum Marking/Broken Column 2897, Upright (1995–96) that sits on an open oak base. “The careful observation of the third eye… has allowed me to navigate the minefield of life as a Black man,” he has said.
As a child growing up in a poor, working-class neighborhood in Georgetown, Guyana, Lyght developed an intense awareness of his surroundings as well as a sense of lurking danger that caused him to soon leave. A pivotal moment in Lyght’s life came shortly after he arrived in Canada in which two separate encounters with police served as wake-up calls to be evermore considerate and vigilant about how he as a Black man and his actions might be perceived differently by others such as simply standing in front of his own house or running to work in street clothes. He realized,“Going forward, I would have to lead a well-organized, structured, and disciplined life. It would be a quiet, reserved one in which observation would be key to my survival.” The omniscient “eye” of the central oil drum piece over the main space, still embodies function and strength, and in this show is reclaimed as a vessel for Lyght’s determined, creative spirit.
The most striking of Lyght’s new work are the two mutable pieces, Painting Structures P330 (2018–19) and Painting Structures P340 (2018–19), on view in the back galleries. They are imaginative with a sophistication grounded in the real experiences of visualizing and creating architectural spaces. After finding the bones of a mule barn in Kingston, Lyght completely reinvented himself and his art. This extensive restoration process itself was a giant impetus toward an outpouring of new architectural works embellished with Lyght’s signature ornamental line drawing, harkening back to the petroglyphs of Guyana that cover the structures like a filigree cobweb. Made of wood and mixed media, they are brightly colored and emphatically present, thus situating the viewer within a dynamic space of line, plane, volume, and color. Here he mutates and hybridizes non-European, precolonial, and prehistoric forms with the technological sophistication and art historical self-referentiality of the self-consciousness that marks our postmodernist moment.
They are particularly innovative and unexpected with their colored panels sliding into wooden planar constructions. The sophistication and innovation of Lyght’s work depend on a balanced layering of colored planes slipped in and out of their constructed enclosures. The originality of the work depends on autonomous self-reliant balance that mirrors the life he has lived as an adventurer and explorer. Not surprisingly, when I recently took my grandchildren to visit Lyght’s studio in Kingston, they were so fascinated seeing him slot in the brightly painted wooden panels into their natural wood enclosures that I could barely get them out of the studio. My grandchildren will never forget these works, and neither will I.
Also on view are Lyght’s latest drawings on paper that employ his same trademark freehand application of vivid, glyphlike lines. He describes his mark making as an act of meditation, an important practice as he created these works on paper through the COVID-19 lockdown this past spring. I have seen him work in the past, totally absorbed in perfecting the forms he draws and cuts out, and the structures he builds to house them. The fluid ornamental drawings appear as an obscure blueprint outlining forms that communicate a reference to an exotic or ancient culture. The linear gestures forge a unique visual language that evokes the timeless complex coexistence of our organic forms of life and spirit within modern industrial structures. This permits the singularly original artist to blur distinctions between drawing, painting, and sculpture, as well as digital photography and installation art.
Lyght explains: “Ancient geoglyphs continue to inform the compositional structure of my drawings—the straight lines reference formal expression, and the freehand drawn lines rely on the intuitive. Every drawing that I make documents the nomadic nature of my creative thoughts that zigzag between memories of the past and life in the present while incorporating observations and experiences that I have had along the way. All part of the grand journey of art and life, looking and striving as I clear a path to create something that transcends the limits of time.” This wholly original approach to materials and structure has led him to create his current body of work as an installation, blending painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture, that shares his own personal experience with the public.