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TODAY

Monday, November 20

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Anthony Lewellen, also known as "Antck," was born in 1971 right here in the Windy City. Since the late 1980's Lewellen has graced the walls — both private and public — of his city (and beyond) with a simple, bold palette and compelling, often pensive characters. Over the last decade, he has experimented with various methods and media, employing markers, spray paint, enamels and acrylics. With wood, steel and other found objects as his surfaces of choice, he has solidified his status as an innovator within the pantheon of Midwest graffiti culture, while at the same time finding a place within the realm of gallery exhibitions. Lewellen's first solo gallery show, "So This Is It," opens Saturday, August 5 at 13th District Gallery, 1706 W. Chicago Ave., and will run through September 9. The show will feature new and previously unseen work, and site-specific installation. Visit www.alewellen.com to find out more about Lewellen's opening reception and to take a dive into his work.

Q: On your website you write: "Joy and sorrow more often than not are reluctant bedfellows, life in the big city is a sea of troubled laughter and the truth is it is always sink or swim. The things I draw and paint are like that." How would you make this sentiment Chi-Town specific?

Lewellen: The sentiment is Chi-Town specific if for no other reason than the fact that I am for better or for worse a product of this city. I was born here, raised here and I have lived here all my life. Everything I do is filtered through my experiences, which have been defined by my geography. I find this fascinating because you have no say as to where and what you will be born into. There are a lot of artists here who are part of — for lack of a better term — the "Chicago Art Scene," who are transplants and moved here to pursue their work. There is nothing wrong with that, but inevitably there is a difference in perception and sense of place.

For sure, though, the stuff I wrote for my site is rooted in my experiences here in this city. Since I was very young I have always been fascinated with alleys, which I was surprised to find New York didn't really have. I remember once walking through an alley near where I was living and saw all this stuff piled up behind a building. Toys, furniture all kinds of things were out there. Enthralled, I started looking through it. I was so excited, but after a little bit a very distraught woman came from somewhere and started yelling at me. A man came and hugged her and told her it was OK. She started crying uncontrollably, and while holding her he looked at me over her shoulder and told me it was OK to take what I wanted. They disappeared into a gangway, but I could still hear her crying. It turns out it was their stuff and they had been evicted. I felt terrible, but still thrilled at the thought of finding something new. I didn't really understand the whole thing — I was only 7. I always wonder what I must have looked like to them: a dirty kid in an alley rummaging through a pile of their stuff. That still makes me sad, but it is one of the moments that defined me in some way. I never lost the sense that just beneath the surface of things there is deep sadness. Someone visiting my studio once mentioned how much they loved my work, but thought I would do better if I painted happy stuff. I thought that was funny.

Q: Within the paintings of yours that I am familiar with, including your mural work, more often than not the subject's eyes are diverted away from the viewer. Do you not like the subjects of your imagination looking you in the eye? Or, do you think it's that these subjects are ashamed to make eye contact with the viewer?

Lewellen: It is not conscious. I work very intuitively and it varies. Definitely not ashamed; if anything it is more about an internal world in which the images exist, which is something I always seem to be aware of when I am working. When I draw or paint I always feel like I am extracting images from a larger story, a story I don't know the beginning or ending to, and I just have this one moment to ponder. A gaze that is not directed outward is probably more about that, which parallels the way I observe city life. When you see someone on the street you only see them at that moment unless you know them, the rest of their life up to that point is a mystery to you, and even then you are only seeing the surface of that moment. What is going on internally is still unseen but sometimes the eyes can give a bit away. People have told me the eyes of my characters always seem to have a deep cynicism, or seem to be trying to extract a sense of empathy. I think that is true. I have also been told that I personally have shifty eyes, always looking around, which makes me sound like a creep. But I am able to take in a lot visually, so I am always sort of cataloging my surroundings and drawing in my head. So, if you see me on the street all shifty-eyed, I am not a creep.

Q: I once read an art critic describe a piece in a show as being "hyper-masculine." The critic obviously meant this to be derogatory, but if it was an accurate assessment of the piece or not doesn't matter to me — my untrained ears dismiss it as art-school-speak. No matter how foreign such talk may seem to someone like me, it is still language. I'm wondering if and how language plays on your mind while you're executing your work?

Lewellen: I love language, and I think about it constantly. So much so that it has to affect my work, but I would be hard pressed to describe how. The thing I find so interesting about language is the fact that we use it every day but there is still so much confusion when trying to communicate with each other. Although in language we use words and phrases with literal meanings they are still subject to interpretation based on individual experience, so what I say may not be what you hear and vice versa. Language parallels visual art in that respect because what I see might not be what you see. "Art-school-speak" can be some of the most confusing language, so I try to avoid it. From time to time I incorporate language and text in my work. I recently finished a piece that is just the word "popinjay," which I learned a few years ago and fell in love with because it sounds so happy. But it is a derogatory term: a popinjay is a vain, talkative person. A good example of how the auditory aspect of language can be euphemistic. An interesting way language affects my work is when I write down a phrase and like it so much I create a piece of work around it.

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About the Author(s)

John Hospodka is a life-long Chicagoan, and today lives with his wife in Bridgeport. He does not profess to be an expert in anything; he's just a big fan of the arts and is eager to make more sense of them. Direct comments or suggestions for interviews to tqf@gapersblock.com.

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