Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sam Lewitt, Total Immersion Environment @Abreu

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale color photographs, framed in white with no mat, and hung in the two room divided gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, and were made in 2010-2011. The prints range in size from 64x22 to 68x78 (a diptych printed as one image), and are available in editions of 3+2AP. The exhibit also includes four sculptures (a helmet, a truck side mirror, a long strip of film, and a flat mirror) covered in a thin film of dust, and a folio of prints soaked in the ink of a cephalopod. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: With digital technologies now ubiquitous and information dissemination now immediate, Sam Lewitt's new photographs of anachronistic letterpress frames challenge the prevailing tide and return us to the wonders and mysteries of hand crafted language. Whether these brainy pictures are part of a celebration of the local and artisanal or a more technology-centric steampunk riff, they explore how the images of letters and words were once transformed into information and knowledge, and thereby ask questions about how linguistics and literacy will evolve in our drastically different virtual world.

In each photograph, a worn iron frame (shiny with the patina of age) provides the space into which letters are organized into sentences and paragraphs, with rough wood blocks holding the individual tiles in place. Given the way letterpress technology works, each letter is reversed and laid in right to left, so that the inking process creates the text right side up and forward as we expect it. As such, these images force the viewer to work hard to decipher the text and discover its meaning. It's a taxing and frustrating decoding process, and a fitting reminder of the complexities of language. Once understood, the snippets of text themselves reveal further strata of scientific and theoretical thinking: geometry for everyone, dimensions of space, Egyptian steam engines, quantum dimensions and signal-to-symbol systems. The fact that these works were actually composed digitally (letter by letter) adds yet another layer of analog to digital conversion.

I think there is something inherently pleasing about the look and feel of the old-fashioned letterpress process; it seems warm, idiosyncratic and human in ways that a computerized system can never be. Lewitt's pictures of the remnants of this printing method are at once both completely ordered and entirely disorienting, a cerebral duality that generates a number of arcane pathways into the changing meaning of 21st century words.

Collector's POV: The photographs in this show are priced as follows. The narrow 64x22 work is $10000, the 64x50 works are $14000 each, and the 68x78 diptych is $20000. Lewitt's work has not yet appeared in the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.

My favorite image in this show was Paper Citizen 4328, 2011; somehow my installation shots didn't capture this particular work. In any case, I resonated with the conceptual juxtaposition of the reversed text describing quantum tunneling and the shrinking of transistors with the antique method of disseminating printed information.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Review: New Yorker (here)
  • Old Reviews: Time Out, 2008 (here), NY Times, 2007 (here)
Sam Lewitt, Total Immersion Environment
Through February 27th

Miguel Abreu Gallery
36 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This show was one of the best things I have seen all year. It was so precise in its use of materials and the way that they reflect the viewer's experience of locating the resources needed to read the work. I don't think either nostalgia or "steam punk" have anything to do with this work. The old printing equipment appears to me to be merely an available system for the organization of information which shows how that info is organized at the same time. Three stars.