interplay of light and dark: Naomi Lewis.
and curator Naomi Lewis’ work blends delicacy and complexity
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.
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.
Lewis' Loose Ends III (2007).
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
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