Art

In Nate Lewis’s Hands, Portraits Become Palpable Landscapes

Here are Black bodies in motion which Lewis freezes in time to remake into patterns of overlapping leaves or the stars of shrunken constellations.

Installation view of Latent Tapestries at Fridman Gallery (all installation images courtesy Fridman Gallery and photos by Jason Mandella)

There is a thing that new lovers sometimes do with each other’s bodies that is similar to what Nate Lewis has done with the bodies depicted in his show of photographic images rendered on paper. In that first flush of wonder at seeing the other naked, we are moved to investigate the body of the loved one in such attentive detail that the body becomes a lush landscape which, under this gaze and even with the faculty of touch, can’t quite be encompassed. Se we return again and again to look and to touch intimately.

Latent Tapestries at Fridman Gallery (now available through an online viewing room and by appointment) is most successful in the series of works titled Signaling, in which Lewis makes bodies migrate from the realm of portraiture into the territory of landscape — landscape with a palpable topography. The inkjet prints initially shrink the body to two dimensions but then open up to three by Lewis pricking and working the surfaces. He frets and troubles the surface until the (always dark) skin sprouts regular patterns like elaborate tattoos or beading work. The gallery director, Ilya Fridman, told me that Lewis has developed a new technique which entails placing pieces of textured fabric underneath the paper and rubbing pigment onto the surface. This creates the blue color seen on the back and legs of the forward tumbling figure in “Signaling XXVI” (2020). Here are Black bodies in motion which Lewis freezes in time to remake into patterns of overlapping leaves or the stars of shrunken constellations. The overall effect is the careful doling out of wonder, inch by inch.

Installation view of Latent Tapestries at Fridman Gallery

Much has been made of Lewis’s previous profession as a critical care nurse. This background seems relevant because, so the argument goes, there is something key within his work that has to do with assessing the body via diagnostic tools. Maybe. Or perhaps, more to the point, Lewis has given up one profession for another in which the body is more fully responsive to his care. See how in “Signaling XXVIII” (2020) the body becomes an ecstatic field of texture, of experimentation — all ways of repudiating the void that is death.

Nate Lewis, “Signaling XXVIII” (2020) (photo by Seph Rodney/Hyperallergic)

There are other aspects to Latent Tapestries, including a basement installation of “Navigating Through Time (2020) — a video of a shadowboxer rhythmically throwing punches enveloped in the music of Chopin’s “Nocturnes” and William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony.” Above ground, in the main gallery, a series of commissioned sound pieces by several jazz musicians broadcast around the space. There is also a series of images, titled Probing the Land, depicting the statues of Confederate officers that line Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. These images are subjected to the same treatment as those in Signaling, but not as successfully, I think, because they are not handled with the same sense of care or curiosity. And at his best, Lewis reminds us that, in someone else’s hands and eyes, bodies really do become the stuff of stars.

Installation view of Latent Tapestries at Fridman Gallery

Nate Lewis: Latent Tapestries continues at Fridman Gallery (169 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 31. The gallery is open by appointment only.

Editor’s note: Please note that Fridman Gallery is currently open by appointment only due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, but we encourage readers to practice social distancing and self-isolation in an effort to mitigate against the outbreak. The exhibition can also be explored virtually.

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