Phoenix Artist Nathaniel Lewis on Figuration, Hot Dogs, and the Zeitgeist

Nathaniel Lewis grilling up some of his art at his Phoenix home.EXPAND
Nathaniel Lewis grilling up some of his art at his Phoenix home.
Mikey Estes

What happens in the studio, shouldn’t always stay in the studio. Studio Visit Q+A is a weekly series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This week: Phoenix artist Nathaniel Lewis.

Since returning to Phoenix in 2013, Nathaniel Lewis has been kept busy with teaching and creating work that straddles the line between playful and unnerving. Last year, Big Head Day, his installation that captured the strangeness of our desert environment, was on display in Tempe as a part of INFLUX Cycle 4. He was also a participant in ARTELPHX at The Clarendon Hotel, which he will again participate in this weekend. We caught up with him at his home in Phoenix to discuss his work and what’s coming next for him.

Last year at ARTELPHX, Lewis displayed a sunbathing hot dog with human features and he’ll be following that up with some more hot dog anthropomorphism this time around. This consumable good has become a recurring motif for Lewis. When he was studying as an undergraduate, he made a sculpture of a nude male figure resting in a hot dog bun. It made a splash, garnering several awards and some press. “It’s been one of those weird pieces that’s haunted me ever since,” says Lewis. 

Lewis' in-progress work that will debut at ARTELPHX 2015.EXPAND
Lewis' in-progress work that will debut at ARTELPHX 2015.
Mikey Estes

What he has planned for ARTELPHX sounds like it’s straight out of a torture scene in a horror film, but with a hot dog standing in as the subject. A human-sized hot dog head with sausage fingers will be forced to sit and watch a monitor playing footage of its likeness being cooked for consumption. Lewis is tapping into the inherent humor present in humanizing a hot dog, creating a playfully uncanny situation. It might be more appetizing than discomforting for some, but the hot dog’s lifelike human features might warrant us to look more closely and think again.

Lewis, whether intentionally or not, has an affinity towards the creepy. When he moved to Boston for several years, there was a lot of buzz surrounding a man who the media dubbed “the Craigslist killer.” The murderer, who was eventually apprehended before committing suicide in 2010, would meet his victims through Craigslist for erotic services. At this time, Lewis wasn’t entirely familiar with Craigslist outside of selling things like furniture, so the story caught his eye.

One of Lewis's Craigslist masks.EXPAND
One of Lewis's Craigslist masks.
Mikey Estes

He began working on Masks, a project that he is continuing here in Phoenix. Using Craigslist, Lewis meets strangers in real life and has them pose nude for photographs wearing colorful, blob-like masks with human mouths. These strange interactions with random people are an interesting exercise in trust, given the climate surrounding Craigslist in Boston after the murders. And, it's even more relevant today. The end result of the work is realized with the documentation, which is also posted on Craigslist, along with the sculptural masks themselves.

Lewis has been keeping this body of work under wraps for years, but now that he will be announced as a recipient of one of the Contemporary Forum artists grants, he’s ready to finally fully realize the project. “They say when you have an idea you have about six months to get it out because it’s in the zeitgeist and it’s gonna happen,” Lewis says. Luckily for Lewis, it’s still happening right now.

The Sky Harbor sign from Lewis's 2014 INFLUX installation Big Head Day.EXPAND
The Sky Harbor sign from Lewis's 2014 INFLUX installation Big Head Day.
Mikey Estes

Tell us about your work in haiku format.
Voyeuristic stare
Silly fuzzy animal
Slightly gross moisture

What artist(s) are you really into right now?
I have recently discovered the works of Berlinde De Bruyckere and Beth Cavener-Stitcher. I think it takes a lot to make figurative sculpture interesting and they both do a great job of showing us things we haven't seen a dozen times.

What are you reading?
I feel super pressured to say something really esoteric and professional and not "Buzzfeed articles". The book I have been slowly re-reading is Making it in the Art World by Brainard Carey. It seems like most "how to" artist books are written by people who haven't done a lot in their careers, but he writes with a lot of honesty and experience.

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
TV: Netflix's Daredevil, which I am enjoying immensely. The last movie I watched that was just for me? Jodorowsky's Dune. On YouTube I just watched about forty minutes of Adam Savage painting a model from Battlestar Galactica. Not proud of it.

If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Most of the collaborations I have done came about naturally from discussions with friends. I think good collaborators bring different skills and qualities. I would probably like to work with a comedian or a musician. Maybe Honus Honus from Man Man.

Lewis's sunbathing hot dog now has a home in his backyard.EXPAND
Lewis's sunbathing hot dog now has a home in his backyard.
Mikey Estes

Upcoming Events

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?
I was recently down at the Hot Box Galleries On Roosevelt. I think they are great. I really hope to see more galleries for mid-level emerging artists. Phoenix has so many great show opportunities for people who are just starting out and there are a few high-end galleries for those who have made it big, but I would love to see more spaces like Hot Box for the growing group of in-betweeners.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovi? and why?
If I'm visiting their studio? Jeff Koons because I'd love to see what goes on in there. If they are visiting my studio? Marina. I saw her talk in 2005 in Pittsburgh and I'd love to hear her thoughts.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
"Nobody's waiting for you." This is so motivating and horrifyingly true.

What are you currently working on?
I'm experimenting for the first time in a few years. It's been a while since I haven't had to do a piece that I promised to do for a show or an installation. I am continuing a series of Craigslist related work. I am revisiting my old homunculus series and I am trying out some new ideas too; I just finished a weird sculpture made out of dryer lint.

What's your most valued tool as an artist?
Mental tool? My willingness to scrap everything and start a project over with a fresh perspective. Physical tool? Super Sculpey may be more of a material, but it is a constant lifesaver. 

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The Clarendon Hotel - Phoenix's Urban Retreat

401 W. Clarendon Ave.
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602-252-7363

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