The sleeper exhibition of the summer had to be the show of photos by Joe Lewis in the project gallery at Kathleen Cullen Fine Art on West 26th Street.
Printed in black and white so that the metallic emulsion becomes almost pearlescently silver and gold, these pictures look antique and futuristic both. Some photos have the quality of historical documents, others seem like dreams or memories, or transmissions from deep space. The silhouette of a wine glass or an amphora, a blurry shadow of an electrical transmission tower, a fragment of a 19th-century proclamation of manumission.
Still others hint at pictorialism, like a ship cutting through northern seas, seen as if through a twilight storm, or a group of Klansman gathered at night in the middle of some ominous deed. For Lewis, the subject is not esthetic vanity but broader social and cultural deeds, things that form both the reality and unconscious of 21st-century life.
His wide reach is unsurprising -- in addition to photography, Lewis has worked with sculpture, performance, installation, public art and music, and has also been involved in a lot of community-based activities. He has exhibited his works at Nexus in Atlanta (1989), Robert Berman Gallery in L.A. (1993), the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (1996) and at Substation in Singapore (2001). In addition to his early days with Collaborative Projects and Fashion MODA in the South Bronx, Lewis has more recently been dean of art schools at Cal State Northridge and FIT. Currently he runs the art and design program at Alfred University in upstate New York.
This interview was conducted via email in August 2007.
Walter Robinson: We’ve known each other for a while now, at least since the Fashion MODA days. I have this vague image of you holding court in a dilapidated Bronx storefront -- do I have that right?
Joe Lewis: Yes, but we met a little before that through Collaborative Projects and related ‘70s scenes.
My former arts partner, Stefan Eins, and I did renovate a small, burnt-out commercial building on Third Avenue in the South Bronx, borrowed some electricity from the city and opened Fashion MODA. It was an anti-space.
One of our core beliefs was that significant art could be made by anyone, anywhere and anytime. You didn’t have to live and work in New York City to be an artist. It was in line with the philosophy of Outsider art and movements for artistic "localism."
We had no formal schedule and would happily add works to an exhibition after the show had been installed.
Holding court is a fairly accurate description, though, since the police would drop by and look at John Ahearn’s castings of neighborhood people to see if they could identify suspects involved in local urban-entrepreneurship activities.
WR: One of the first works of yours that I remember is an amazing sculpture made out of bars of ivory soap, arranged on the floor in a grid like a Carl Andre, with a title taken from the Ivory soap slogan, 99.44% Pure. Where was that, at P.S.1?
JL: The exhibition was titled "Reassemblage" and it was at P.S.1 in 1985. Tom Finkelpearl was the curator. The full title of the piece was 99.44% Pure: Homage to Minimalism, and it was made of twin-sized bath bars of Ivory soap.
I still use or rather misuse non-art materials like telephone books, hand soap, gummy bears, salt licks, spices and sliced fruit. Everything is fair game.
WR: Your Ivory soap work, and another sculpture you exhibited more recently -- a kind of Brancusian "Endless Column" made from stacked copies of the White Pages -- stand out in my mind because of the way that they introduce the idea of race, and Racist America, into the serene and exalted vocabulary of Minimalist art. How do you think of works like these -- as provocations?
JL: That work was titled Mandela and Anne Frank Forever: Endless Column, and it was shown in "Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery" at the New-York Historical Society last year, in 2006.
I like to encourage viewers to consider society from multiple vantage points by building unusual relationships between materials and disparate lexicons.
For example, the telephone books represented the idea that if a number of people equal to all those who died during the Middle Passage and the Holocaust were to disappear from the New York metropolitan areas tonight, I would wake up tomorrow and be alone in the tristate area around New York City.
The subtext of this work is, if Mandela and Anne Frank were seeking companionship today and signed up with eHarmony.com, they would meet because of their similar life experiences.
An ongoing personal struggle within my work is how to present challenging issues without agitprop or beating someone over the head. How do you create a space where someone can understand content as a springboard into their own unknown? Minimalism offers an ideal pathway. When you hang something ironic on a Minimalist framework, you provide ample conceptual space and encourage self-exploration.
P.S. -- There is nothing minimal about racism. Racism is environmental pollution.
WR: Nelson Mandela and Anne Frank, that’s incredible. What about the new work -- why photography?
JL: I like the immediacy of black-and-white photography. It is recognizable but abstract, detailed but fluid. The processes I use -- a tweaked basic black-and-white process, developer, fix and wash -- essentially allow me to react to the photographic image as a painter, and take advantage of the occasional imprecision of the brush and build off chemical accidents that happen as I slosh all the stuff together. The process also allows me to extract metallic hues and additional colors during the darkroom process
It’s all about deconstruction and reconstruction.
I have worked in this vein with the photographer Ivan Dalla Tana for over 20 years. The process combines Ivan’s experiments with the black-and-white developing process and my interest in printmaking, color Xerox manipulations, and different types of multiples (casting, cut-outs and industrially produced products like soap).
If you’re interested in the process it goes like this:
Something sets me off, a news item, say, about an iceberg the size of New Hampshire breaking off of the Antarctic shelf. How to you visualize something like that? Sometimes it sends you into another conceptual direction.
This current body of work looks at arctic ice as a metaphor for erasure. Ice that is hundreds of thousands of years old moves into open water and another large chunk of earth’s history is lost as it melts into the sea.
I imagine taking core samples of these huge icebergs and gently slicing through the rod to investigate the history of a particular moment in the earth’s history and space and time. It’s kind of like hypertext. You just start going and there’s no telling where you might wind up.
All the images I use are appropriated from public media, newspapers, magazines, books, etc. Sometimes I commission images.
Then I scan and push them around in Photoshop. Occasionally, very occasionally, I actually take a photograph that I use as the basis of the piece. I print these images out on a really poor quality printer and re-photograph the images on 4 x 5 black-and-white negative film. Then, I go into the darkroom and that is where the real magic happens.
WR: What about the silhouettes of classical vases, which appear in several works. Does that have anything to do with your current position as dean at Alfred University, which has a big ceramics program?
JL: Ironically, I started making faux vessels a few years before I came to Alfred. It was the weirdest feeling doing my dog-and-pony show during the interview process, talking about my work and showing the faux vessels I had been making for three years. . . prescient moments. Oddly, I started examining women’s high-end accessories, bags, shoes, hats, things like that, a few years before I became the dean at FIT, too, a job I had before.
Vessels have always mesmerized me. Like clay, they have deep roots in every society. I think of them as bridges. They both hold and transport everything of significance. They are stable icons that, for the most part, haven’t changed or centuries. The latest manifestation of the vessel is cyberspace. A space within a space that doesn’t really exist, yet holds all knowledge.
WR: Some of the images in your new photos are more classical in feeling, while others are haunting and seem timeless, as if they are seared in memory. Are you trying for something epic and historical here? You called your recent show "Future Works."
JL: The show at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts was titled "Future Works" because ecology, global warming, war, habitat and species extinction, race and representation, all the notions and images I use in the work support the conceptual underpinnings of a possible future.
I’d like to think I have somehow connected or tapped to our collective subconscious, but in a sense I am just pulling ideas off the morning news. The real challenge is to make art out of these bits and pieces of our reality. I am a third-generation artist raised in the ghetto who was classically educated. This had its assets and liabilities.
I cannot tell you how many times I found myself looking up from the schoolyard pavement with Douglas, Maynard or Jerald looming above me with their fists clenched, saying, "What the hell does 'thoroughly' mean!" But I also learned that the world was much larger than 52nd Street Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues.
My undergraduate training was also steeped in the classical tradition, first painting at Hamilton College under James Penney, a WPA artist; then studying Verrocchio with David Lafell at the Arts Students League; and finally, a summer in Florence with the noted Renaissance historian Charles Trinkaus.
The considered opinion of the art department at Hamilton College was that there had been no painting after 1500 and it took me years to become "contemporary." There were evenings I couldn’t sleep after installing a show at Fashion MODA in the Bronx.
I didn’t understand the work! I had intense "artmares" where my art history professors (all from Princeton) in very dramatic fashion stood atop composite columns scolding my obvious break from tradition.
The one thing history taught me was that everything that met with resistance eventually became academic, "Explosion in the Shingle Factory," Minimalism, graffiti, etc. I figured if people were investing time in this stuff then there had to be something to it.
Classical training is like a chronic and progressive illness. Once you’ve got it, it’s always with you. One thing is for sure, if you tell a story, everyone will understand it.
"Clairvoyance: Future Works by Joe Lewis," June 28-July 31, 2007, at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, 508 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.