Guyana-born, New York-based artist Andrew Lyght references ancient petroglyphs through fluid linework juxtaposed with unconventional materials in new Second Nature exhibition at Anna Zorina Gallery in NYC. The exhibition is open for viewing until 24th October 2020, and features artwork which comments on the complex relationship between organic life and mechanical structures. Here, we discuss his artistic influences and methods, as well as his personal experience of navigating racism in new urban environments, and the effect of this on his own artistic expression and identity.
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White Line Drawing B-7, 2020. ©Andrew Lyght
You have mentioned that whilst growing up, artwork provided an escape from a variety of pressures and troubles. How does this aspect of escapism influence your artistic concepts and creations today? Do you still treat your work as a means of escape from the pressures of everyday life, or has your outlook evolved throughout the years?
Working in the studio provides me with an opportunity to look out, explore and imagine a world with no barriers or boundaries and with limitless possibilities. My work is about keeping hope alive, not escapism.
When you were younger, you used to fix bicycles and sell hand-made kites for pocket money. How did this influence your expertise in working with alternative materials? Which unconventional materials do you most enjoy experimenting with?
My choice of materials has mostly to do with what is readily available to me at the time and place that I am working in and what I want to create or build with them. For me, art has always been about line and structure in space. Generally, I work to create volume using the simplest materials, methods and objects, such as the 55-gallon drum (barrel).
After winning a competition in school, you attracted the attention of artist Edward R. Burrowes, and soon after worked and studied as his apprentice. How was your experience of working alongside Guyana’s leading artist at the time, and how did his mentoring influence your own artistic expression?
I was quite young when I went to study with Burrowes, and I received a thorough classical training in Renaissance methods and materials. I received instruction in drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery and art history from pre-historic, Renaissance and modern times. Most importantly, he helped me develop and sharpen my observation skills and encouraged me to observe the world and people around me. Burrowes provided me with a solid foundation on which to develop and create my own artistic vision and voice.
At fifteen, he told me that I could be an accomplished artist by the age of nineteen in Guyana and encouraged me to leave the country to further develop my strong sense of line drawing and abstraction. At the age of 20 I moved to Canada, and at 27, I emigrated to the United States for a greater challenge.
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White Line Drawing KC-2, 2020. ©Andrew Lyght
In your Second Nature exhibition at Anna Zorina Gallery, the relaxed linework juxtaposed with the raw, mechanical materials they are inscribed on implies a coexistence between the natural and the industrial. When creating these pieces, what inspired you to provide an artistic commentary on the relationship between organic life and artificial, industrial structures?
The initial inspiration for my Broken Column/Third Eye series came from my memories of watching drums of cooking oil being unloaded from ships in Georgetown, Guyana. I recalled books that Mr Burrowes had in his library of ancient Greek vessels decorated with figures. In the 1990s, I was able to acquire as many 55-gallon steel drums as I wanted from a friend’s candy factory in Long Island City, which allowed me to create this series. The barrels were free, and he delivered them to my studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
You have described the freehanded application of your striking linework as an act of meditation. When creating the artwork for the Second Nature exhibition, how did this meditative feeling manifest itself, either within yourself personally or in your work?
My freehand, petroglyph-like drawings are central to my daily artistic practice, and I started making these drawings before I left Guyana in 1968. Over the years, I have made hundreds of these, and each one is unique. The method by which I create them is meditative in that none of them are pre-planned and are developed from the first mark made on the paper, or in the case of the drum, the steel plane.
Do you draw inspiration from any other modern or experimental artists? How do you ensure you retain your own identity as an artist in an ever-changing industry?
Throughout my life and career, I have been inspired by a wide range of artists and have looked at the works of hundreds of artists. Making art for me is like running a long-distance race, looking at the works of artists that came before me, taking those ideas and pushing them forward. I am interested in artists who are breaking new ground and pushing the envelope to what might be around the corner. It is the uncertainty of it all that helps to drive my ideas and artistic practice.
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White Line Drawing CJ-2, 2020. ©Andrew Lyght
Many claim that your signature linework is a reference to ancient geoglyphs, such as the Nazca Lines from Peru, and petroglyphs from your birthplace of Guyana, and indeed you spent time studying Timehri rock paintings and drawings. Do your previous studies of these ancient forms still shape your artistic style, despite your focus on modern industrial materials and techniques?
Yes, the ancient geoglyphs continue to inform the compositional structure of my drawings – the straight lines reference the rigor of the formal, and the freehand-drawn lines rely on the intuitive. Every drawing that I make documents the nomadic nature of my creative thoughts that zigzag between memories of the past and life in the present while incorporating observations and experiences that I have had along the way. All part of the grand journey of art and life, looking and striving as I clear a path to create something that transcends the limits of time.
You spent your childhood in Guyana, South America, before immigrating to Montreal, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Europe, and later, Kingston, New York. Some say this experience of consistent movement and migration is reflected by the fluidity of your linework, yet the deconstructive elements of your work suggest a rejection of physical borders. Can you elaborate on these interpretations?
Yes, the organic forms and vibrant, repetitive lines laid out on non-traditional materials reflect our complex relationship amongst industrial systems. I think that the spontaneity of my mark-making taps into the subconscious feeling of modern life.
What commentary does your Second Nature exhibition provide in regards to movement and limitations?
My Second Nature exhibition is a sampling of the work from several periods, but not all. That demonstrates the dedication to my creative vision.
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White Line Drawing A-1, 2020. ©Andrew Lyght
You have commented before on the difficulties of experiencing racism and profiling for the first time after moving to Canada, and that since then, you have endeavoured to keep race removed from your artwork. Do you still believe that artwork should speak for itself, without being bound or restricted by ethnic identity or other protected characteristics, or has your stance changed at all?
In my work, the placement of the barrel (drum) perpendicular on the wall above an open square represents the third eye. It is the careful observation of the third eye that has allowed me to navigate the minefield of life as a Black man. Ever since I was a child growing up in a simple, poor, working-class neighborhood in Georgetown, Guyana, I developed an awareness that I always had to be acutely aware of my surroundings and of what was going on at all times, even when I was playing outdoors. I learned to acknowledge any sense of danger and know when to leave.
After living in Canada for about a year, in the summer of 1970, I was stopped by the cops right in front of the front door to my basement apartment in Point Saint Charles, a poor, working-class, French-Canadian neighborhood of Montreal. Without explanation, I was immediately told to put my hands on top of the car, I was patted down, handcuffed and thrown into the back seat of the police car. I was taken to the station house, told to take off my belt and then locked in a cell with a toilet and a bed with a bare mattress where I remained for six hours. At midnight, I was taken to a room with a large glass window and told to look straight ahead at the window. After standing there for a long while, six Black men joined me and told to do the same.
After the lineup, I was finally given an explanation as to why I was picked up. The explanation was that there had been a robbery at the drugstore located two blocks away, and at the time, I was the first Black person that they saw close by and one of the very few Black people living in that area.
This must’ve been a traumatic experience, even though it’s unfortunately way too common among Black men. How did this event mark you?
What remains with me to this day from that encounter with the police are two images that become constant elements in my work: one, the vertical bars of a cell, and two, the rectangle shape of a lineup window where I saw my life in a flash before my eyes going in a whole different direction with the possibility of going to prison for a crime that I had not committed. For me it was a wake-up call that forced me to see that going forward, I would have to lead a well-organized, structured and disciplined life. It would be a quiet, reserved one in which observation would be key to my survival.
This incident was later reinforced by a second occurrence in which I was stopped on the way to work. I was running to work in street clothes at 6:00 am to my job in the kitchen of a cafeteria at the Sun Life Insurance Company in downtown Montreal. After passing a police car, I suddenly heard the breaks of a car and the squeak of the wheels, and a shout to ‘stop.’ I turned around to see a policeman pointing his gun at me and quietly walked back. After stopping me, he asked me why I was running, and I told him for exercise. While I was let go, that was the last time I ever ran alone in public and in street clothes.
Today, I am fortunate to be 71 years old, living in Kingston, New York, and working alone in the studio of a building that I own.
You have previously stated that spending much of your youth on the docks in Georgetown overlooking the waterlines, where boats meet with the water’s surface, has inspired your creative outlook. Do you still experience this fascination with the intersections between natural and artificial? If so, how is this influence portrayed in your artwork in the new Second Nature exhibition?
There is a format that is pretty consistent in all of my line drawings on flat surfaces whether it is on paper, steel or plywood. The straight lines under the freehand drawings are laid out in a grid pattern where two paths meet and form what looks like a cross. This grid pattern is reminiscent of the way the Dutch laid out the city of Georgetown in Guyana and New York City in the United States. Life is about intersections.
The exhibition Second Nature by Andrew Lyght is currently on view until the 24th of October at Anna Zorina gallery, 532 W 24th St, New York.
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