The Bronx Celebrates:
by Susan Hoeltzel
Navigating Momentary Lapses
Man passes through the present with his eyes blind-folded. He is permitted
merely to sense and guess at what he is actually experiencing. Only later
when the cloth is untied can he glance at the past and find out what he
has experienced and what meaning it has had.
Thoroughly within the moment, Lewis' work on one hand invites the obvious
comparisons with other women artists such as (Women's Work: she braids
and sews) Lee Bontecou, Senga Nengudi, and perhaps most notably Eva Hesse.
On the other hand, there are the less obvious comparisons with Ellen Gallagher,
who also provokes a sensation of blackness out of the webs she weaves,
albeit on canvas. The sources are there but what are we to make of sources?
Until the gallerist, curator, or critic comes along, the source is irrelevant.
And as much as these comparative claims are valid, their virtue lies in
the fact that they all rely on materials at once suffused with content.
Though they all do different things with varied materials that is somehow
kinetically abstract. Lewis' installations and sculptures are first and
foremost signatory poems. So attentive to formalist concerns, yet always
wanting to make her point and make it clearly, which leads to sometimes
heavy-handed titling. But, as the consummate formalist that she is, Cathleen
wants the work to look good regardless of content. And like Mona Hatoum
or early Rachel Lachowicz, she casts a spell on the formalist ethics of
purity and universalityit is what it is. By conceptually reworking
the aesthetics of minimalism and abstraction, she is concerned with personalizing
an artistic concept that originated greatly on the premise of mathematical
science, the use of machinery, and depersonalization.
The complementary piece in this exhibition is Binary Oppositions.
In fact, it is a straight up response/study on the supposed structural
silence of the minimalist grid (see Donald Judd or Rosalind Krauss). "The
grid announces modern art's will to silence,''1
Krauss said almost twenty years ago. Lewis' grid is comprised of one hundred
and forty four stainless steel rectangles arranged directly on the wall
with one word in black or white with a word that has been read as
either "black" or "white." From twenty yards the piece is to the human
eye an undescriptive tract reiterating the formalism of the 60's and 70's,
yet closer inspection lends a sociological lesson in linguistics, hardly
the subject of High Minimalism. Here the silent majority of minimalism
has become one big argument filled with dissenting voices. Her words are
monogamous like Ruscha's but by engaging language so plentifully upon
the grid she has inherently given it a voicea voice at once suppressed
by modernist longing and secondarily oppressed from the stance of its
history in onerous stereotypicality.
It's easy to look on the history of art as a succession of monuments visualizing whatever it is the critics said it was. Yet, conversely modern art is a living growing organism that, like Hip Hop, is born to recycle, reclaim, and make it "new." Art has come upon the end of the millennium with a multiplicity of meanings: some pointed and some pointless. Yet, some critics have finally caught wind of a "trend" in recent work by artists of color (firstly, women artists of all colors) reinvigorating the tenets of "big bad and universal" minimalism. Did someone say "palatable" and content-less? Actually, not. It's been going on ever since...you know what I mean. Artists of color have been imbibing strict formalism with content for years, such as Jacob Lawrence and Social Realism or Norman Lewis and Abstract Expressionism. In this radically apolitical moment when no one seems to have a clue as to political and economic reality, the art world mirrors "the real world." All this is to say, it's not necessarily a trend of contemporary visual art practice. People photograph, draw, sculpt, paint, scatter, and most absurdly cook and feed viewers, calling it art. Please. Cathleen does something of the first four, seducing on various levels through means subtle, mysterious, and subliminal.
1. Rosalind Krauss, "Grids," October 9, Summer 1979, P. 51.
Students reflect upon Good Presence, 1996
Binary Oppositions, 1995
Extensions (Ethnic Signifiers), 1996