The Bronx Celebrates:

Cathleen Lewis

Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel

Navigating Momentary Lapses
By M. Franklin Sirmans, 1996

 

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.

-Milan Kundera, Laughable Loves (1968)



As a writer and a critic of contemporary visual art, at times I would like to be able to define the moment and spread that opinion among my peers. It ain't like that though. The only thing one could say as far as trends go in the art of this decade is "nothing much." I've been following Cathleen Lewis' work since 1993, when I was fortunate enough to catch a piece of her early output in an otherwise unremarkable group show somewhere down on Hudson Street in a now defunct gallery. When I wrote my first piece about her work, two years ago, I wanted to shed light on an artist who I feel embodies the moment in many ways and at the same time, send her a little sonnet in public text—a token of esteem for what I had seen. Was that accomplished?, who knows. Cathleen's work has all the trappings of what cult critics like to call "postmodernism." Yeah, whatever. The work looks good and most importantly it's smart and that's why it sticks out like your lucky twenty dollar bill under the token booth.

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 universality—it 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.

Entering Extensions, the viewer is forced to bob and weave through an obstructed path in a sea of swirling hair. Long whips of hair wound with thread hang from the ceiling and protrude from the walls, creating an all over Pollockian splash. The abstract installation manages to reference culturally-specific information, as in her many installations and sculptures dealing with the loaded subject of hair, inviting discussion on a range of topics, all touched upon so delicately by the hand of the artist or in the case of Binary Oppositions, her fabricator. In 1993, she discussed the issue of hair in Burning Hair, where she comments directly on the black hair practice of hot comb straightening. The burn imprints of hundreds of combs fill a large white canvas. At the foot of the canvas is a wooden box stuffed with the combs that produced these burns. "People always have this strange relationship to hair, especially for black women. My work with the hot comb goes back to Madame C. J. Walker's invention of the hot comb and I cannot remember ever being unconscious about my own hair."

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 voice—a 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

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

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

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