The Bronx Celebrates:

     Cathleen Lewis

     November 5, 1996-January 15, 1997

     Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel
    Essay, Navigating Momentary Lapses
    by M. Franklin Sirmans

Introduction
by Susan Hoeltzel
Director, Lehman College Art Gallery

The work of Cathleen Lewis is, at its core, conceptual. Her installations explore the issues of race, gender and identity through formalist abstraction and the framework of language. Lewis probes the exterior—the rituals of beauty, style, and fashion—for ethnic identity, history, and personal memory. The body is an implied source in much of the work and hair is a constant metaphor. Mirrors, reflections, and shadows function visually and create the illusion of an additional corporal presence—they also include the viewer in many of the works.

The scale of Lewis' work is often very large, creating an environment. Extensions (Ethnic Signifiers), fills an entire gallery from floor to ceiling with a frenetic, maze of synthetic hair in which the viewer is a small element. Its twists and coils, shaped by a millinery wire sub-structure, read as a three-dimensional drawing and allude to the social constructs of adornment. The viewer enters and carefully maneuvers a constructed forest, moving from one end of the space to the other. Cast shadows add to the layers of line. Lewis' work operates on multiple levels at all times. The clean, minimalist lines of many of the works are countered with a content which functions at subliminal as well as the conscious levels. Black, an installation of twelve bags crocheted from rubber, is strung from floor to ceiling. The stark, organic forms bring to mind a range of associations from fashion accessories to the sinister images of lynchings and castration. Binary Oppositions, a monumental installation which examines the language of race, is also a work in which the form and content convey different messages. Its minimalist stainless steel grid looks detached and institutional; its message is not. One hundred and forty-four panels with familiar sayings, word associations, and dictionary definitions examine the words "black" and "white" and the cultural/color coding of the discourse. The sort is personal and subjective. Black ink identifies terms connected to the word "white" and white ink to the word "black." The permutations are infinite.

Lewis is also interested in exploring how words and images are reworked, played back or interpreted by the outside world—ranging from the "found" language in Good Presence to the shocking Mexican ad campaign for a white sale presented in Reflected Values. Good Presence offers a series of mirrors with silk-screened text and images of coiffures in silhouette. The work mixes out-takes of conversations, childhood memories, and a chronology of hairstyle from 1955, the year of Lewis' birth, to the present. Much of the work evokes complex and paradoxical associations. In Scarification Proudly Made in the USA, a canvas marked with hot comb burns, recalling early memories of the family—mothers, sisters and aunts—and the nurturing/grooming exercises of childhood. At the same time the work acknowledges a connection between pain and beauty and the intervention of culture over nature. Its title is a reminder that in part this ritual finds its meanings through commonly held values within a community. Hot combs, curling irons, and braids of blond and black hair—presented in 19th century museum-style vitrines in the work Boxes—read as both archaic devices of torture and trophies on display.

Lehman College Art Gallery is pleased to present the work of Cathleen Lewis in the gallery's ongoing series, The Bronx Celebrates. This series features the work of artists who have lived, worked, or grown-up in the Bronx and has included Vito Acconci, Lawrence Weiner, Ida Applebroog, Tim Rollins + KOS, and Rigoberto Torres, among others. Lewis was born and raised in the Bronx.

The Bronx Celebrates: Cathleen Lewis was made possible through a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts Visual Arts Program. The work of so many people has contributed to the success of this project. I would like to thank Cathleen Lewis for developing this installation with us and for the time she has spent discussing her work with staff, faculty, students and the public. I would like to acknowledge Carla Chammas, Richard Desroche, and Glenn McMillan of CRG for their assistance, and Ivan Vera for his help with the installation. I would also like to thank Maria Pagliarulo, Ron Cruz, and Jennifer Buckley, the student interns; Mary Ann Siano, the associate director; Phillip Kautz, education coordinator; and Denise Mediavilla, registrar, for their efforts on this project—as always, their advice and good humor has made this project possible.

 

Binary Oppositions, 1995
157" x 221" total
each panel 13" x 11"
silk-screen on stainless steel
144 panels

Fall, 1995
dimensions variable
brass wire

Black, 1993-95
dimensions variable
12 crocheted black rubber bag

 

Artist's Statement

The work begins with a specific idea, usually around issues of gender and black identity. I then use an array of materials to actualize those ideas. The present body of work uses text, hair, and rubber as material as well as metaphor. I am addressing the ways in which visual images, as well as language, past and present, have helped to shape the way "others" see us, and ways in which we see ourselves. This "seeing" is predetermined by prevailing ideas in the dominant culture, which is often masked and subtly embedded into the subconscious. The site is black bodies as battleground for this psycho-trauma, although the entire body is not often present. It could be a specific portion of the body as in "hair," or a reference to the body as in "savage beauty."

In pieces such as "Binary Oppositions" and "Reflected Values," I have used language based on dictionary meanings and common phrases to deconstruct perceptions of "otherness, " demonstrating how language is not transparent, but instead like any other institution is embedded with racism reflecting the ideas and values of the controlling class. Both the language and the visual in "Reflected Values" are appropriated from a newspaper account of racism in Mexico. This image was actually used in a national television campaign directly signifying how "blackness" is perceived in other cultures as well as our own. Often what we see on television or read in books and newspapers we assume have an inherent truth factor. By using reflective surfaces such as mirrors and stainless steel I am placing viewers in situations in which they might ask themselves how much they have invested in these perceptions of "blackness?"

—Cathleen Lewis

 

Exhibition Checklist

Black, 1993-95
dimensions variable
12 crocheted black rubber bags

Scarification
Proudly Made in the USA, 1994
20" x 24"
diptych, c-print

Bows, 1994-95
dimensions variable
brass, wire, and thread

Moss, 1994-95
dimensions variable
horsehair, latex, and thread

Binary Oppositions, 1995
157" x 221" total
each panel 13" x 11"
silk-screen on stainless steel
144 panels
               
Fall, 1995
dimensions variable
brass wire

Good presence, 1996
each panel l l" x 8"
silk-screen on mirrors
21 panels

Extensions (Ethnic Signifiers), 1996
synthetic hair and millinery wire
variable dimensions

Reflected Values, 1996
silk-screen on glass panels, mirrors
aluminum shelf

Boxes, 1995
14 1/2" X 9"
triptych