Shell shocked: Lewis wows with technique

David Dodge Lewis, "Barnacle #1."
David Dodge Lewis, "Barnacle #1."

Sometimes it's best not to know. At a September 25 workshop, David Dodge Lewis will teach the process he used to create the 11 works on paper comprising his exhibition, "Darwin's Sanctum," currently on view at Chroma Projects. But Lewis's pieces are so staggeringly beautiful, disclosing their nuts and bolts may taint their magic.

Combining India ink, Cont© crayon, charcoal, and pencil, along with a wax-resist technique to suggest texture, Lewis makes what initially appear to be black-and-white scientific drawings of barnacle-laden objects. But he enlarges his encrusted subjects and presents them free of context, letting them float on the page and prod viewers to make non-barnacled associations. (An overhead view of an alien landscape? A stone sprouting succulents? A meteor fragment?)

Particularly intriguing is how Lewis's compositions offer one experience viewed from a distance, where they seem like ultra-realist renderings (of what exactly remains unclear), and another when observed up close, where subtle details emerge. For example, in a work on the gallery's east wall, faint penciled outlines create the impression of filmy layers of tissue surrounding the central object but disappear altogether when the viewer takes a few steps back.

In another piece, hanging near the gallery's southwest corner, a shadowy area of roughed-in charcoal transforms into a bit of script reading, "You Us," when examined from a few inches away. Lewis deftly uses such an extensive range of marks to create his works, one has to wonder how many secrets would emerge if one looked long and carefully enough.

Another significant aspect of Lewis's technique is the way he mixes the spontaneity of ink spatters, which energize his backgrounds, with areas of controlled refinement. By integrating areas of ink wash with precise charcoal and Cont© drawing, he creates a sense of dimension and depth that pulls the eye into areas of shadow, even as brittle projections seem to jut from the page.

And then there are the barnacles themselves, at once monstrous and erotic with their tight-lipped or gaping mouths lurking within stiff raised collars. By enlarging his subject matter and thoughtfully choosing how to let the barnacles cascade across the page, Lewis creates a compelling tension between repulsion and seduction (with seduction winning every time).

No doubt, Lewis's workshop will be instructive, but to sustain the marvel of his art, take a tip from Wizard of Oz: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

David Dodge Lewis's exhibition,"Darwin's Sanctum," is on view through September 25 at Chroma Projects Art Laboratory. 418 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 202-0269.