Dittmar’s “reevaluating ‘a’” illuminates philosophical questions through narrative storytelling


Photos courtesy lewis lain

A painting by lewis lain. lain’s work, which follows a narrative centered around a character named 53947, will be on display at Dittmar from Oct. 18 to Dec. 8.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

It all started with an abandoned window.

Artist lewis lain was walking through a Chicago alley when he spotted a window gutted from a construction project. So he did what any “meddling creative” would: he turned the tarnished glass into art.

This single window inspired “reevaluating ‘a,’” lain’s exhibit of 40 paintings and 12 cardboard sculptures, which will be on display at the Dittmar Gallery from Oct. 18 through Dec. 8. When lain brought the window home, he said he noticed a “trickery of light” in its upper corner. Pointing to the “human energy” trapped between the glass, lain said he visualized an image, traced it, and added color with acrylic paint and structural elements with reclaimed cardboard.

His technique wasn’t merely aesthetic — lain said he sees images in glass, from the panes of his lofted Rogers Park apartment to the windows he uses as canvasses.

“Every time a human being has an interaction with a window, light energy gets trapped in the glass until, over time, it vibrates and collects,” lain said. “That is what I believe I’m seeing.”

According to lain, the exhibit follows the narrative arc of 53947, a typeface designer who spots a “burning” letter “a” above a deep valley and embarks on a journey that illuminates the “knowledge of everything.”

Having exhibited work in over 80 locations around Chicago, lain said his relationship with 53947 is “quid pro quo,” or “a favor for a favor.” By painting the letter “a,” lain said he connected 53947 with “ultimate knowledge,” which both of them conceive as the neutrality of reality. In return, 53947 provides lain with images that alter the artist’s worldview.

lain said this newfound understanding is conceptual and dynamic: 53947 has revealed to him, for example, that what’s conventionally considered negative — from lain’s father’s death to a man-eating octopus — is inherently “neutral.” lain said he hopes “reevaluating ‘a’” will offer people a “mind-opening” experience that can broaden their knowledge of the world.

lain added that he continued to look for more gutted windows and churned out five paintings before he decided upon the main character for “reevaluating ‘a.’”

“That was the moment when I thought, ‘Is this person real or am I schizophrenic?’” lain said. “I see things through these windows. So to be confronted with this image of this thing moving for me, posing for me and saying, ‘Hey, I’m real,’ it was sort of like, ‘you’re saying you’re perceiving your world with five senses — what’s the deal?’”

Medill junior and Dittmar student curator Karen Reyes said the gallery chose lain’s work from 63 submissions. She said she was drawn to the exhibit’s “whimsical” nature.

“We were immediately intrigued by it because it was unusual,” the Medill junior said. “It stood out from the other proposals because he spoke about his work as a story. It was a really interesting way to present it.”

YouTube media consultant Roby Duncan has collaborated with lain for six years on the 21-part webcomic “Smaller Totems.” Duncan said he initially thought lain was a “crazy person” when the artist explained his creative process, which lain explained to Duncan as a visualization of “paint by numbers.”

But after observing lain at work, Duncan said he developed an appreciation for lain’s “psychedelic” art. “reevaluating ‘a,’” he added, challenges the notion that visual narratives have a unidimensional meaning.

“The process of standing back from a picture that lewis has done and talking with him about it feels collaborative,” Duncan said. “It feels like you’re trying to figure out what the hell’s going on together, rather than that there’s some masterpiece of encoded symbolism that he’s waiting to have you figure out. That’s something new for me.”

lain said he wants viewers to have the freedom to explore “reevaluating ‘a.’”

“Ultimately, your experience of it is suggestive,” he said. “By the time you’re done with this exhibit, you might come out of it with something more than (53947’s) intended story.”

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Twitter: @herscowitz

A previous version of this story misstated the name of the typeface designer. It is 53947. The Daily regrets the error.