Making art has always had its subversive side, a deliberate attempt to manipulate perception and emotion. The most figurative of artists still fiddle with color, texture and form to produce an effect; those on the more abstract end of the spectrum fling, drip, carve or hammer their conceptual inventions into existence from more subtle inspirational origins. The goal may be to soothe or shock, educate or confuse, but above all to coax the viewer into a dialogue.
Asheville artist Heather Lewis came to this conclusion early in her development as a painter, as well as a creator of works on paper and of three-dimensional installation art. “I was curious about what any image meant, how the form of it affected what it conveyed,” Heather says of her years at the University of Dundee in Scotland, where she earned her M.F.A. “I loved…the ability of simple marks to create illusions in traditional art practice.”
Starting with ceramics produced for her own business in Scotland in the late 1980s, Heather’s attraction to the designs she produced for the pots soon overtook any interest in making the pots themselves, and she was soon exploring other forms of expression, turning to memories of growing up near an oil refinery in Trinidad & Tobago, where her British-born parents were teachers. “I grew up in an oilfield town, seeing the lights of the huge refinery from my bedroom window,” Heather recalls, pinpointing the inspiration of the nightscapes that were her first explorations of new forms in her post-ceramic phase. “I found that nightscapes, often simplified versions of lights at night in a dark void, using stencils and single colors, allowed me to use dots and edges to create an understanding of space, yet also imply other circumstances.”
The night scenes were Heather’s first foray into using pure forms and painterly technique to suggest rather than show. It proved to be the doorway to even more adventurously sly work when she moved to the United States in 2002 and was drawn to throwaway bits of plastic, metal and packaging material she found at the local recycler. “I loved the clean-cut shapes and curves, and the regularity, ingenuity and technology that produced these things,” Heather says. “I had to work hard to understand that the dynamics that were really operating in the nightscapes could be taken further forward by using these shapes and objects. It freed me from all kinds of irrelevant limitations. That was the birth of what I see as my focused practice, my mature work.”
The discovery led her down several artistic paths at once. Works on canvas included a “circle series,” the circles taken from sardine cans, cake pans, plastic plates, Frisbees and other ephemera and transformed via acrylics into repeating, layered patterns with a tip of the hat to Warhol, Duchamp and others inspired by objets trouvé. “A common thread to artists who currently influence me is that they consider the interaction of contemporary technology and daily life within their practice in interesting ways.”
Heather’s contribution is to play with these forms in new ways, often layering them to trick the eye into perceiving depth in the canvas’ two-dimensional world. Further such subversions are presented in Heather’s works on paper, a collection of stenciled images produced from Coca-Cola cartons, kitchen utensils and electric stove rings sprinkled with particles of cast iron brake grindings. Delicate and refined in cool gray against pure white paper, these images play with the contrast between primitive form and modern technology. “Technology is something I play with, reclaiming it from the clutches of big business and industry,” Heather says of these works. “I am quite low-tech in practical terms, but I’m taking control and deciding what kind of product it will make for me, and why. That’s not something we get to do every day.”
Technology is more evident in Heather’s installation works, ranging from abstract patterns (what Heather calls skins) projected onto an otherwise mundane white bungalow, which becomes like a wallflower suddenly cutting loose on the dance floor. There’s a shrewd Pay-Per-View installation first shown last summer in the lobby of the Asheville Community Theater, a clever comment on the intersection between art and commerce. Merely a projector housed inside a plain white box, Pay-Per-View requires patrons to insert a quarter to be able to view Heather’s images on the opposite wall. “Kids figured it out immediately, adults took a while to get it — they mostly had to have it explained,” Heather says of the work’s debut. (It’s since been shown elsewhere, most recently in Knoxville this past fall.) “So far it’s not been a money-maker — people seem to like the idea but don’t want to fork out the cash to see it work. It’s an interesting illustration of perceived value, what we expect to pay, or not pay, for. It questions perception of the art object’s value.”
These and other works are on exhibit in a show of past and new work, Heather Lewis: Cottage/Industry, on view this month at the Holden Gallery at Warren Wilson College. Among the new works are a twist to the pay-per-view light painting, which will now invite viewers to make their own contribution by drawing on a wall, and another light-created piece using mirrors that recalls Heather’s circle series. Other works feature molded wax bottles, plastic tubs full of recycled cartons, Christmas lights, and one work on board subjected to the rigors of a gravel driveway. “I like the idea of making art which is not aiming to be commercial by involving various commercial concepts, methods, equipment and such,” Heather says. “It raises interesting questions.”