Culture- ART FEATURE- Assembly line: Lewis re-collects the past
When I was little, my mom kept a large pair of red-handled scissors hanging on the side of a kitchen cabinet next to the refrigerator. I'm pretty sure they're still at my dad's house in Lexington, but the pair Fredericksburg artist Joni Ulman Lewis places a at the center of her assemblage "Coupon Cutter" seems identical, the worn-away paint and rusting blades so familiar.
Such nostalgia is key to the success of the 20 mixed-media pieces in Lewis' current exhibition at the Mudhouse. Working with images and objects that seem salvaged from her grandmother's junk drawer, Lewis creates thematic, memory-box-like collages that tap into viewers' emotional residue. Although this kind of assemblage is hardly new (in fact, it's only a step away from scrap-booking), Lewis does it well, with a strong sense of color and careful attention to compositional balance.
Like local artist Andy Faith and Lexington's S. Harb (or on a grander scale, Joseph Cornell), Lewis views any and every discarded scrap as artistic treasure. Old bingo cards– gold! Pencils with biz logos– pearls! Buttons, wasps' nests, sewing patterns, seed packets– manna from heaven! You get the idea.
Although Lewis doesn't push a political agenda (like Faith) or zing with acerbic wit (like Harb), she does tap into a certain wistfulness for the 20th century with a gentle sense of humor. Her re-assembled past is whitewashed and Mayberry RFD innocent, filled with only the best intentions.
For instance, in "Mistakes Can Help Us," one of the strongest pieces in the show, Lewis places a blue page fragment from an elementary math textbook in the upper left and balances it with a green addition worksheet, complete with penciled-in answers and red-pen corrections, on the lower right. In the center, over a horizontal line of red "Admit One" tickets, Lewis pastes a red dunce cap on an antique photo of a boy, which she sets on a diagonal with multicolored, promotional pencils, neatly lined-up and sharpened, extending from both ends.
Although Lewis does a nice job framing her pieces in copper-rimmed shallow boxes, using one of the tape measures she cuts up would have benefited her while hanging them. Also, the Mudhouse is not the best venue for work that requires viewers' attention to small details. Lingering over Lewis's collages means taking an elbow or two from those more interested in a caffeine buzz than an arty cruise down memory lane.
Joni Ulman Lewis's mixed-media assemblages are on view at the Mudhouse through the end of July. 213 W. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 984-5163.