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Isaac S. Lewin: Sculptural Painter

There is something unique about Isaac S. Lewin.  When he first arrived at the San Jose State University's graduate program no one knew what to make of him.  Was he a painter? But then he kept hanging out at the sculpture foundry in south campus and was always welding.  No he was a sculptor, but then he would travel during his breaks to create graffiti.  In actuality Lewin is a an artist, one who's vision translates from a flat surface and transitions into a three dimensional sculpture.  The best analogy I can surmise is if you were to step into a live action version of TRON and find yourself in a gallery, Lewin's pieces would be on the wall.  

The vigor that lives in Lewin's work ethic is also fascinating because simply, he never stops making.  There are no guidelines to his process, much like with any artist compelled to create, yet there is an aesthetic that flows throughout his work.  Imagining not just typography but how a language that exists in everyone's minds could become tangible and then, in the words of Will Smith, 'flipped turned upside down.' 

One thing is certain, Lewin is in a hot romance with art.  He stalks it, holds it in his heart and compels it to be his lover.  Nothing will ever take him away from the tools and the moments to make, no matter what life throws at him.  

To keep up to date with his upcoming work check out his newly formed website, be patient more will be posted at and follow him on Instagram @isaacs.lewin for a window inside his world of creation.  And this coming June 05, 2015 check out his piece 'Surrounded' at The Embark Gallery in San Francisco for the group show 'Perception.'

Photo © Aimee Santos

Text is also an element that finds it way into your work.  However your text has no language.  Is there a reason for that?  And where did the need to do this come from?

I started working with false language text sketching graffiti in a black book. I was struggling to rework letters from the English alphabet forms into much more aesthetically pleasing ways. I decide to avoid the restrictions and apply new lines, dots, and curves where it looked best. Perhaps from my appreciation for Asiatic character based text and the Hebrew letters in my torah I came up with the texts I build today. I also like the fluidity of writing so I keep the execution free of too much planning. I never draw or pencil the text, I prefer in the moment of application.

People often think I’m trying to communicate an idea through the text, but I’m actually trying to do the opposite. I wish you to see good-looking text and perhaps transcend past the meaning to feeling of some kind. 

Lewin's current work delves with white on white sculpture in his 'Surrounded' show from October, 2014.  Photo © Ninh Filip

Photo © Aimee Santos

You began working in 2D with intricate designs.  How did you initially feel your work needed to transition to 3D?

 As you know my entry point into image making and visual art was through writing graffiti. Obviously most graffiti and the kind I had been practicing used letterforms. This is why I use the phrase “writing graffiti”. You can think of each letter as a collection of connecting bars. By extracting the bars from each letter and focusing on the linear qualities I started creating what I call geometric pathfinders. These pathfinders had a great feeling of movement and my initial pen and ink versions were moments in time. I saw the pathfinders as illustrations of unseen energy and force. I arranged them into loose configurations and tighter conglomerations to explore their relationship with each other. I became hyper aware of their sense of space. I added the illusion of three-dimensionality by adding edges and layering to add depth, physical presence.  

            Following these drawings I integrated these shapes into to the human space by overlaying them on top of photo based imagery. I drew and then printed the pathfinders coming from the open mouth of a figure or hanging like an accordion from spread hands. With these prints and drawings I had already imagined the pathfinders as physical forms that took up real space, thus the construction of the form from drawing was natural.

'Talking to Yourself' by Isaac S. Lewin.

            My drawings are still important to me. Just like graffiti, they are the sketches. The structures are the illegal missions.  I should note here that the building process for each sculpture is very organic. I understand how the form can operate and then let it construct itself with each length of the rod. I use no measuring instruments. This would kill the path that’s meant to be found through the building process. If it feels right, I cut the rod and weld. Intuition is my most reliable device. In addition some of these structures are 12 feet long. I can’t come back to the studio feeling the same through out a lengthy build, so I let the piece change as it is constructed. 

Most of your work is Black and White.  Why is that and are you potentially going to start using color in future works?  And does your graffiti style also only use Black and White?

In graffiti you will almost always start in Black and White, and even when you excel to high technical styles and color schemes you will return to the tried and true Black and White for higher visibility. In my fine art I’ve used Black and White to achieve high contrast. I want you to understand my distinct aesthetic choices. I think color can enhance, but often muddle my design. Black and White demand perspective and focus, gradients are gradients, but I am a line smith. I want the ink permanent, and sharp and the paint thick and heavy. I don’t see myself using color anytime soon, maybe rust or silver but not color.

Isaac S. Lewin in his studio at the San Jose State University Foundry in San Jose, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Sculptural piece from 'Stunked Reader' show at San Jose State University. Image courtesy of Isaac S. Lewin

Image courtesy of Isaac S. Lewin

Have you thought about looping your work back to 2D by taking the designs forming in 3D and configuring them into a pattern that works in the 2D world?

 I think these two fields are integral. I heard once that the famous producer DJ Premier offered that one not only builds beats through analog but also uses the full spectrum of technologies to their advantage. My art education has always been split by two-dimensional work versus three-dimensional work, yet I think I have hit a stride by interchanging the mediums for the sake of making good work. One day you’re sketching and the next minute welding. It’s best to have two or three projects going at once. One to inspire the others…just trying to keep it fresh and funky. I’ll take an intricate 15-hour drawing and print it into satisfactory oblivion if necessary.   

Detail from 'Stunked Reader' show.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Isaac S. Lewin traveled to Israel to leave his mark on the wall separating the West Bank of Palestine and Bethlehem, Israel.  Photo courtesy of Isaac S. Lewin.

You have traveled a lot for pleasure as well as art.  Can you speak more to the drive to create art in other countries?  And how these travels have created relationships with other artists that might have inspired you to another step in your work?

I try to go abroad at least once a year. Although I grew up traveling with my family, I lived in Chile for a year before my undergraduate studies. I didn’t know what the graffiti culture would be like, but it turned out to be on fire. There is less of a stigma surrounding graffiti and the immense urban decay begs your touch. Although I’ve had my run-ins with the law abroad the consequences are less. Either that or the authorities don’t want to go through the trouble of doing paper work for an international.

While my domestic graffiti has more or less stopped, I go out daily in my travels. It’s only more recently that I’ve integrated concepts from my fine art into my mural works. Large-scale graffiti and murals are just more intense gestural exercises. I appreciate the physical work you have to put in for good results. You get a keen sense of the site you are working in, the atmosphere of a place.

In Israel I went with the intention of painting wherever possible, but I enthusiastically pursued the separation wall between the West Bank (Palestine) and Israel. I was able to make my way to Bethlehem, which is nestled against this dividing wall on the Palestinian side. The wall is multiple stories tall and topped with “smart fences” that sense motion and cameras. Other artist and graffiti writers had come to exceptionally trashed parts of the wall next the slums of a refugee camp, but I set up shop near an Israeli checkpoint. When I started it was late afternoon. By the evening time I finished. As I packed up my supplies scores of Palestinians who had been working on the Israeli side were now walking past the freshly painted work. I was able to speak with the people and gain a better understanding of what they saw in the work and how it correlated with their circumstance concerning the wall.

As a Jewish man I am highly concerned about the situation in Israel and Palestine. I see security issues for the Israelis, but I see the wall as being an inhumane response to the Palestinian population who need to be free. I wanted to respond through my art. I wanted to say something with out saying something that could be understood through the language we use to build walls and to tear them down. I had been working with character like text that is written through a stream of consciousness. I place each mark based on where it should be placed aesthetically. Thus I am focused on making beautiful strong text not the meaning of such text. So, when the men in Palestine asked me what this language said I asked them to make the decision. I wanted to be the observant scribe, not the decisive force.

The other reason I love painting on the street is the dynamics of the commitment. I was working on a piece in Valparaiso, Chile outside an anarchist squat where some local friends where living when the cops detained me and hauled me to the precinct. When I was released my friends were waiting outside. I told them they didn’t have to do that, but they all commiserated that there position as anarchist put them in jail often. While not an anarchist myself, I distinctly remember retrieving some paint from the squat. One of the residents asked me if I was going to finish. I said I didn’t know based on the precedent to which he told me there was no other option. It took two more separate occasions before I finished. Quitting after the first attempt would have compromised my commitment to my work and my community in that place. There are many stories like this and I keep traveling and working on the street for more stories.

Photo © Aimee Santos

2D work and sculpture stand side by side and speak to each other on the walls in the 'Stunked Reader' show at San Jose State University in San Jose, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Photo © Aimee Santos

'A Continuación' by Isaac S. Lewin.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Do you feel that your graffiti work and your current 3D work are connected on an aesthetic level?  Is it possible your graffiti has now transformed into the physical three-dimensional form and the shapes are now your movable design projected on a wall with light?

 On an aesthetic level I feel that there are direct tendencies between my graffiti history and my fine arts three-dimensional approach. One of the first tools you learn in graffiti to make your work come alive is the drop shadow, followed by the 3D. So knowing where to put a line in a drawing in which I wanted more plasticity was natural. I have never tried to build letters using the rod though. I think there are more coherent constructed lettering technologies in commercial signage that I wish to employ. Currently, I’m looking to learn channel letters for an upcoming show.

 Light has become a huge device in my work. In my most recent exhibition I painted a new collection of pathfinders white. Installed on white gallery walls, I merged the plane with the erratic forms. I wanted to loose the wall so to speak so the audience focused more attention on the phenomenon of the shadow.

Yes, there are many ideas to peruse from each presentation of work. I’m thinking of enhancing effects of shadow play with kinetic lighting and so forth. In any presentation my primary goal is to make assertions and reevaluate according to the affectivity or in affectivity.   

'Untitled 2' by Isaac S. Lewin during a show at the Minna gallery in San Francisco, CA.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Photo © Aimee Santos