In Tony Lewis’s drawings, bits of language are arranged in the tradition of concrete poetry, which treats letters and words as visual forms instead of units of communication. For example, Lewis routinely jumbles letters, erases parts of phrases, and multiplies words on top of each other—all of which encourages us to appreciate language as a kind of visual art. Still, in some cases, as in Poferd, it is possible to pick out words that resonate with linguistic meaning. Far from incidental, the words “people of color”—recombined here with other letters to make new nonsensical words, such as “poferd”—evoke the history of race relations in America, particularly Jim Crow–era signs announcing that “colored people” were not welcome. By both drawing our attention to and transforming these words, Lewis underscores the power of language to shape our identities and questions how the meaning of these particular words has changed.
Label from We the People: New Art from the Collection, October 23, 2018–July 21, 2019