Portraits of young gay men by Gilbert Lewis influenced by Virginia Woolf's gender-fluid Orlando

Lewis, Untitled (Blonde Portrait), c. 1980. All images courtesy of Kapp Kapp

"But time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect on the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness on the body of time."

This excerpt from Virginia Woolf's Orlando inspires a new exhibition of gouache and graphic artworks by Gilbert Lewis, The Mind of Man – featuring portraits of young gay men coming of age that Gilbert painted in his Philadelphia studio apartment between the years of 1982 and 2009.

Together, they unveil the artist's development over time and mark a watershed in the cultural history of the United States when public views towards gay men in America had begun to shift at a more rapid pace in light of the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s, and the global rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s. "The queer personal history of each of his sitters is filtered through a history of art and a particular model of academic painting that is biographically attuned to the artist," explains art historian, Desiree Mitton.

In 1963, Lewis moved to Philadelphia where he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. "An avid draftsman, Lewis would sketch in museums across the city and eventually won a travel grant to Europe in the summer of 1967 alongside his peer Judy Pinto," Desiree adds. "Their trip followed in the wake of the Arno River, which had recently flooded Florence, damaging millions of manuscripts and works of art; nonetheless, Lewis managed to visit in person many of the Early Christian and Renaissance masterworks held by collections throughout Europe that would influence the classical bearing of his sitters. Those who typically sat for his portraits were two kinds of people: queer young men, as witnessed by Lewis, who is himself gay, and older people – after Lewis earned a master's degree in art therapy in 1978 and began to work at a nursing home in Media, Pennsylvania."

Apparently a mainstay of the queer arts community in Philadelphia, Lewis would trade his artworks for his haircuts. "On occasion, he invited the slender and bald-headed salesclerk who ran a vintage clothing store over to his studio where the clerk posed for a series of nude portraits in the early 1980s," says Desiree. "Friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends who were boyfriends regularly sat for Lewis and were encouraged by the artist to bring CDs or tapes of their favourite music to play during a session."

Lewis took great care to paint any identifying features of his sitters whether a tattoo, earring, shade of hair dye, or a personal item of clothing. Coupled with a mash-up of period styles, we're left wondering when the painting was actually made. For instance, in Summer Portrait (2009), the regal poise of a young man in a sweater recalls the bearing of Albrecht Durer in a self-portrait that dates back to the year 1500. The manufactured stitch of the young man's sweater and t-shirt returns us to the 21st-century reality of sweatshops and shipping containers.

On show at Kapp Kapp, Philadelphia until 23 October, Desiree concludes: "What Lewis establishes through a stylised rendering of his sitters and their persona is a temporal gravitas and breadth of human consciousness not unlike the one Virginia Woolf writes for her gay protagonist Orlando, who is assigned a male gender at birth, only to become a woman over the course of a lifetime that spans centuries.

"It seems that in the year 2020, in light of the social isolation mandated by a global pandemic and a collective reckoning with centuries of systemic abuse, entire systems and schools of thought have fallen by the wayside as people turn inwards. Now, it seems, and perhaps more than ever, the passage of time, as experienced by the mind, is a matter of life and death."

Lewis, Untitled (Rose Portrait), c. 1988

Lewis, Untitled (Rose Portrait), c. 1988

Lewis, Sumer Portrait, 2009

Lewis, Sumer Portrait, 2009

Lewis, Untitled (Nude Portrait), c. 1980

Lewis, Untitled (Nude Portrait), c. 1980

Lewis, Untitled (Technicolor Portrait), 1982

Lewis, Untitled (Technicolor Portrait), 1982

Lewis, Untitled (Portrait 2), c. 1980

Lewis, Untitled (Portrait 2), c. 1980

Lewis, Untitled (Double Portrait), 1982

Lewis, Untitled (Double Portrait), 1982

Lewis, Untitled (Brown Hair Portrait), 1982

Lewis, Untitled (Brown Hair Portrait), 1982

Lewis, Untitled (Striped Portrait), c, 2000

Lewis, Untitled (Striped Portrait), c, 2000