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The interplay of light and dark: Naomi Lewis.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Layers of Understanding

Artist and curator Naomi Lewis’ work blends delicacy and complexity

By Nadine Wasserman

If you happen to be rushing through Terminal A at the Albany International Airport on the way to your next flight, you could easily miss the small, black-and-white prints of Naomi Lewis. Lewis’ works require close, intimate focus. What appears simple from a distance gains complexity upon closer scrutiny. For Lewis, slowing down is exactly the point. She explains that her work captures and holds a small moment in time “where slow, quiet processes pass unnoticed.” As “slow” movements begin to take hold across the globe, and people are realizing that their lives are taking place at an unhealthy pace, works such as Lewis’s are fitting examples of how reflection and contemplation can enhance our well-being.

Lewis is primarily a printmaker, although she has worked also with ceramic, ink, and more recently watercolor. She explains that prints have always suited her lifestyle because they have allowed her to work small, with control and discipline, in limited amounts of time. When she works, she slows down and adopts a zenlike demeanor. This inner focus allows her to retreat from the hectic pace of her life as exhibition and outreach coordinator for the University Art Museum at the University at Albany. As she explains it: “I get to see the art business from all sides because I interact on a daily basis with artists, gallery directors, collectors, and critics.” When she sits down at her drawing table, it is a way for her to regroup and concentrate on her own work.

To create her abstractions, Lewis works from light to dark. It is this painstaking process of shading that creates intricate patterns and textures. Lines and shapes overlap and intersect in what Lewis explains as “a network of delicate and sensuous elements.” Ultimately, her layered images appear organic yet unfamiliar, as if one were peering through a microscope at an unknown sample.

In two of her most recent exhibitions, at Albany Center Galleries and in the Mohawk Hudson regional, Lewis showed work based on knots. These works mark a shift from earlier work in that they are larger, bolder. Similar to her smaller work, the imagery draws the viewer in to scrutinize the details up close. While inspired by actual knots, these are not literal translations; these knots could never be unwound. While Lewis researches genuine knots in order to inform her process, she does not work from life. Instead she intuitively constructs the knots by laying down a basic outline and then working in small areas until an overall image takes shape. They are abstractions that reflect her interest in the abstract qualities of light and pattern. Here again, she works from the lightest wash to the darkest. She starts with white, then adds the middle value, and then works on the shading. She describes the process as a bit like cloisonné (a layering process used in metalworking).

With this series, she was inspired by her undergrad work in the mid-’70s at Skidmore College in ceramics. At that time she was making work in which she imprinted the surfaces of the clay using small patterned tools. When she began her most recent series based on knots, Lewis noticed a ceramic piece she had made as an undergrad. She decided to revisit that type of surface design while continuing to explore her interest in the interplay between light and dark. This focus on the abstract effects of light can be seen in Lewis’s early two-dimensional work. In 1984, Lewis received her M.A. from the College of St. Rose. While there, she studied screen printing, and her prints from the 1980s depict architectural facades. But rather than realistic reproductions of building entrances, these images are studies of shape and light. Lewis’ images are close-cropped with an eye toward composition rather than realism. Her interest was in finding a balance between pattern and texture while ultimately seeking to explore light and atmosphere.

Knotty: Lewis' Loose Ends III (2007).

Lewis’ screen prints, while far less abstract than her later work, also reveal the influence of feminist themes. An image of a house can become a metaphor for domesticity; the transitional space of the facade can both reveal and conceal the intimate space within.

Themes of family and the role of mother are underlying subjects in much of Lewis’ work, particularly when she uses images of knots and nests. Lewis explains that while the work may have an autobiographical element, it is subtle and far from literal. Perhaps more influential in terms of feminism is the work of artists such as Miriam Schapiro and Joyce Kosloff whose work explores pattern in women’s crafts. Lewis finds the slow, incremental building of forms in crafts such as knitting, quilting, and crocheting compelling. These processes grow organically as small individual elements come together to become a larger, complex whole.

Her early interests led Lewis to think further about accumulative processes in nature. She started collecting images that had appealing patterns and textures such as bubbles, cells, corral, fossils, nettles, mushrooms, beehives, snails, tubers, leaves, and horsehair. She was particularly interested in the internal geometry that resulted from random natural growth, where similar shapes are repeated but never exactly replicated. Most compelling to Lewis is a leaf pattern that has an interesting shading, depth, and texture. Many of her works use this pattern, which she has dubbed the “melon rind” because of its appearance. In his book Why Beauty Is Truth, the mathematician Ian Stewart writes: “Why does the universe seem to be so mathematical? . . . The symmetrical relation between mathematical ideas and the physical world, like the symmetry between our sense of beauty and the most profoundly important mathematical forms, is a deep and possibly unsolvable mystery.” Lewis, like so many scientists and artists, seeks to understand the order in chaos. She is seeking a harmony and juxtaposition of pattern that are apparent in nature.

Lewis’ other inquiry is into process itself. In 1999, she received an M.F.A. from the University at Albany in printmaking, and process was the focus of her thesis exhibition. Lewis taught printmaking for many years, and in her own work she has experimented with different types including etching and polymer gravure. She prefers the velvety-rich black she can get with aquatint, and is always seeking a luminous, electric surface that contains imagery that is familiar yet abstract. Lewis began working with India ink while at an artist’s residency at the Millay Colony for Arts in 2004 because there were no printmaking facilities. She not only changed mediums but also shifted scale, making drawings of nests that were larger than most of her previous work. Lewis explains that she prefers to avoid color because it can be visually distracting.

But Lewis is open to the possibility of change in her work, since she will soon have a much larger studio space. For years she has worked in a makeshift workspace in her home. She explains that the new space will be shared among five printmakers who “specifically chose a studio space with an open floor plan, high ceilings and lots of light. With both a common area and smaller private spaces, there are possibilities for new directions, perhaps even collaborative ones.” It will be interesting to see whether Lewis will continue to experiment with color and scale.

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