The third solo exhibition at Miguel Abreu by Sam Lewitt, an artist not yet 30, treated text and image, industry and technology in bone-dry but rewarding photographs and sculptures. Forming the core of the show were several C-prints called “Paper Citizens” (2011), depicting the matrices used in letterpress composition; Lewitt rescued the hardware from a modernizing New York City print shop. As large as 6 feet on a side, these arresting, coldly seductive photos present the metal frames and letters, as well as the visually lush bits of wood used for spacing, all set against bright white backgrounds. While most of the photos appear to show an actual assembled plate of text, Lewitt digitally composed each image from individual photographs of the separate parts. In Paper Citizen 4327 he tips his hand, letting individual letters float separately against the white background. In this way he highlights the modern process used in portraying these antique objects.
In each image, the type spells out found text—backward, in keeping with printing processes. One includes the exhibition’s title, “Total Immersion Environment.” Paper Citizen 4328 describes the shrinkage in size and simultaneous growth in power of transistors since the 1960s, the sort of progress that obviated the printing press. A passage in Paper Citizen: face forward indicates that ancient Egyptian priests used a primitive steam engine to cause vapor to flow from statues of the gods, seemingly animating them. This piece suggests an Oz-like parallel—the gods and the printed word, both propped up with machines.
The show’s four sculptures, collectively called “Test Subjects” (all 2010), consist of found objects coated in industrial dust used to test machinery under punishing conditions. On the wall hung a full-length mirror and a strip of unexposed film, while on pedestals rested a pilot’s visored helmet and a truck’s rearview mirror, each labeled with the grade of dust employed (“A4 coarse” or “A2 fine,” for example). Normally signifying decay and obsolescence, dust is here considered as a vital material.
The gallery’s two glass doors each bore a column of words printed in block letters, one in red facing the street, one in black facing the gallery. Thus one column was always backward for the viewer, echoing the photographs. Some pairings, such as “free / images; cheap / laborers; com / positors” and “con / sumers,” hinted at Lewitt’s interest in economies and value.
A two-sided color photocopy accompanying the press release further fleshed out the text theme introduced in the photos. One side reproduced a New York Times story about an exhibition investigating the dawn of written language, illustrated with 5,200-year-old clay tablets; the other side had a picture of an explosive device and part of a Times article about bombs from Yemen hidden in toner cartridges. Writing devices: fostering civilization in 3,200 B.C., pressed into service to destroy it in 2010 A.D.
Photo: Sam Lewitt: Paper Citizen 4326, 2011, chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 63 3⁄8 by 49 3⁄4 inches; at Miguel Abreu.
See Art in America online’s profile of Sam Lewitt, conducted on the occasion of this show.