Golda Lewis: Four Decades of an Artist's Explorations in Paper at Atlanta's American Museum of Papermaking is a revelation for how it alters our view of this most quotidian substance. Paper is at once profoundly ordinary -- the regular stuff of memos, printouts and daily communications. But it also has a more sublime dimension as the material on which literature, history and civilization have been imprinted.
Lewis manages to add a third quality to paper -- a sensual, tactile dimension of glorying in the material. This retrospective of her work features a relatively small sampling of pieces made between 1961 and 2001, but it definitely conveys the artist's continuing enthusiasm and engagement with the material.
Papermaking extends back to 105 B.C. China, but Lewis was one of the pioneering artists beginning in the '60s to use it in novel ways. In Lewis' hands, paper is not simply a surface to draw or paint on but a material with interesting properties all its own, unique in the way it holds color, coexists with other materials or can be used to create molds of objects.
Like the abstract expressionists and their wild-style interpersonal communication with paint, Lewis conveys something visceral with the sheer flux, play and personality of her material.
That infectious sense of energy is especially evident in an early work, "Security Blanket" from 1961, a melee of thick globs of paint, bits of fabric, outcroppings of paper and a general dizzying hullabaloo that makes the invocation of "Security" feel ironic. The work is propulsive and crazily in motion.
In Lewis' hands, paper becomes globular, thick and built up into masses of dense pulp to take on the look, depending upon her approach, of tapestry, clay or topography. Shards of richly colored pulp flock her handmade papers like streaks of fat in cold cuts. There are tiny worlds of color and texture embedded in the chunks of dried pulp that form her artworks.
By using such an unexpected material in such novel ways, Lewis highlights some of the pleasure-zone of both painting and sculpture -- the physical, sensual satisfaction of manipulating and handling stuff. In that alone, this retrospective is a revelation beyond one's aesthetic response to the material.
Lewis' innovations in the field and sense of experimentation are clear elements in this exhibition. There are striking differences between her sculptural black-and-white pieces "Visbeck Bride" (1982) and "Newgrange" (1982) and her flat, colorful collages of soda cans, stamps and paper like "As Good as Gold" (2001) and "Overboard" (1999).
In "Visbeck Bride," built-up layers of thick white pulp resemble a topographic map of mountains and canyons, rivers and valleys. "Overboard," with its more traditional approach, looks like the work of another artist altogether. Blue-tinted paper striated with white to resemble cumulus clouds forms a backdrop for an accumulation of international postage stamps featuring aquatic scenes of rowers, ocean, ships and other nautical themes. Other collages in the series take a predominant color, like green or gold, and organize stamps within that color family. These stamp collages are probably most interesting for showing the dramatic aesthetic shifts Lewis' career has taken.
In other works, Lewis seems to take a distinct and tactile pleasure in embedding materials into paper: license plates, grillwork, rusted metal, wood. Like someone so mad about a friend, she is anxious to introduce him to all her other pals, Lewis appears to delight in matchmaking odd materials. In "Drawing in Shoemaker's Leather #50," the artist has created a sculptural collage that looks like baked bread burned to a crisp around the edges. Lewis has embedded strips of brown leather into thick, creamy ivory paper to create an interplay between her beloved nest of paper transformed by the shape and the leaking brown color of the leather.
Lewis is an artist who takes great chances in form if not always in content. Some of the subject matter, like two puffy mushrooms leaning into each other like lovers in "Dolmen -- Jutland, Denmark," or a yellow New York taxicab in "Pitch Hit," can feel trite. And there is something in the material and in Lewis' approach that gives the work a dated quality. The preponderance of rusts, mossy greens, avocados and muddy yellows seems rooted in an aesthetic of '70s color schemes.
But Golda Lewis: Four Decades of an Artist's Explorations in Paper inspires respect and a recognition of Lewis' contributions to the paper arts, even if minor aesthetic quibbles remain over some of her visual choices and subject matter. u