Comedian Jerry Lewis’ photo exhibit at Barrick Museum is no joke

The photos in Jerry Lewis’ Painted Pictures are part of a “long study.”
Photo: L.E. Baskow

When given full access to thousands of photographs taken by actor, director and comedian Jerry Lewis, there are a number of ways a curator can run with it. After all, this is a man known for perpetually having a camera at his side, who for more than five decades has been documenting his life in photographs, while simultaneously building a body of serious abstract works.

For Michele Quinn, who led the task of documenting and cataloging the images with the intention of mounting an exhibition, the decision was to go with the latter, a collection of motion-based light and color works that the actor long ago dubbed his “painted pictures.”

Taken mostly during a three-decade period beginning in the 1950s, the 200 pieces in Barrick Museum’s Painted Pictures demonstrate how Lewis approached his craft as an artist, using assistants and props (including matches) to create drawings of light, or the immediate environment as source material for color compositions. Lewis took the images in several locations, including sites in Europe, Mexico and, of course, Las Vegas. Some images hint at or reveal the location (including signs and marquees of the old-school Strip at night), others only configurations of light.

Quinn, art advisor and owner of MCQ Fine Art, arranged Lewis’ photographs in suites of images, each with its own storyline. Among the untitled works are electrically charged drawings in light on black sky, color field-style compositions and works that more closely resemble abstract watercolors on paper and etchings than photographs. Some are charged and frenetic, others are more sedate and even quietly poetic.

The show, culled from 600 of the “painted pictures” in envelopes that were boxed in a warehouse, can seem almost overwhelming in volume, but among the collection are precious standouts, including a suite of images that begins with colored lights set up as props that are blurred in consecutive shots.

The exhibit also includes original posters of Jerry Lewis movies and will be accompanied by weekly screenings of 15 films selected by Lewis that will be rotated at Barrick Museum Auditorium, beginning May 15 at 6 p.m.

The effort was prompted by a family friend, aware that the images were stored and had not been exhibited. Quinn says Lewis, a longtime Las Vegas resident, gave her carte blanche, and that the actor has thousands of celebrity photos that were interesting but not nearly as unique as the “painted pictures.”

“He was using a camera probably in a way that wasn’t done then,” Quinn says, adding that this wasn’t something he dabbled in for a year, but rather a long study—without the aid of Photoshop or digital cameras. “These works stand alone as unique images regardless of celebrity,” she says.

Painted Pictures Through September 27; Monday-Wednesday & Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m. UNLV’s Barrick Museum, 895-3381.

Photo of Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson

Get more Kristen Peterson
  • An interest in fibers and column pedestals unites the artists, along with a fascination for transforming materials.

  • She has ushered in a cultural shift, focusing on the perspectives of people of color, women and LGBTQ communities.

  • The Barrick Lecture Series concluded with a few stories from the photographer who captured the Rolling Stones and Barack Obama at their peak.

  • Get More Fine Art Stories
Top of Story