Nate Lewis: Irredeemable Narratives, Irreconcilable Ideas
Motifs of memory, repetition, perception, trauma, and memorialisation weave through Latent Tapestries, Nate Lewis' first exhibition in New York at Fridman Gallery (1 March–31 May 2020). The exhibition focuses on ways of listening and seeing through works on paper, an exhibition score, and video installation, with textures, resonances, and rhythms becoming the visual and aural matter composing a sensory triangulation of material, sound, and moving image.
Exhibition view: Nate Lewis, Latent Tapestries, Fridman Gallery, New York (1 March–5 April 2020). Courtesy Fridman Gallery. Photo: Jason Mandella.
Performing as the preface to the show is a small framed collage on paper hanging on the wall, this is your heart on a prelude (2013), that displays an electrocardiogram as musical notes; a kind of sheet music setting the tone for the next verses. The arrangement of musical notes combined with graph paper and gingerly cut strips pasted together indicate the improvisational nature of the artist's hand in the process of making.
As he breaks the surface, narratives come to light.
Large works on paper continue down the length of the gallery wall: selections from the series 'Signaling' (2020) that display Lewis' method of unlocking memories held below the surface of the paper. Each work is a static environment of black and white patterns creating a map of dots and hash strokes composed with a combination of material, method, and process. In every image, a black figure in mid-pose emerges in black space—bodies bend and fold, their limbs delineated by imprinted patterns, prints, cuts, and tears that make jagged edges and expose soft fuzzy patches.
Lewis' artistic process separates and opens up layers of paper fibres, which he also makes and embosses himself, drawing with ink and graphite, and rubbing imprints of texture and pattern into the pliant and supple surface. Lewis first acquired these tactile methods in the nine years he spent as a practicing critical care nurse. He began drawing in 2010, tying in his medical background to etch his subjects so skillfully and with precision as to examine their and the paper's threshold. As he breaks the surface, narratives come to light. In the series 'Probing the Land' (2020), works are made up of photographs of American monuments that float against a white background, their image recalling the gruesome past of slavery in the United States. Probing the Land IV (2020), for instance, depicts a monument of a confederate army officer, his head and torso drawn out of raised fibres of paper incised with a sharp object, his chest is laid bare as his organs are exposed. He rides a horse whose body is a patchwork of patterns; entrails spilling between its legs—trauma memory inscribed into the material object itself.
Winding around the exhibition space is a score of sound pieces commissioned by the artist for the show, by various jazz musicians, subtly filling the space with a medley of drums, synthesiser, flute, church vocals, trumpet, and a deep drone. This history of jazz, its roots deep in the plantations of African-American slave work songs, whispers down to the gallery basement where Navigating Through Time (2020), Lewis' first video installation, is on loop. The work is a double projection of the same image, one shows a shadow boxer throwing punches in the air in reverse motion, while the other projection shows the same shadow boxer in forward motion. The soundtrack also plays in forward and reverse in a seamless blend of bells, Chopin, crowd noise from the 'fight of the century' of 1910, which featured the first African-American world champion boxer in the Jim Crow era, and William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony (1930)—the first symphony composed by an African-American. The video feels like a meditation on the exhibition above, tying in major and minor histories in a repetition of arms swinging into a black void—a cycle of a Sisyphean nature.
Lewis' work presents us with ideas and symbols that stand for irreconcilable ideas: a monument for a confederate officer is ultimately celebratory for some and causes great lament for others. Lewis tries to scrape away at the surface of these images and symbols with an expert surgical stroke of the hand. Incisions and gashes are not sewn back together, and a mending never happens. Instead, these wounds remain wide open, irremediable narratives in their current condition. —[O]