Capturing Past And Present

March 13, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Lisa Lewenz's "A Letter Without Words," being shown at the Gormley Gallery of the College of Notre Dame (through March 27), is a series within a series within a series.

Each of the 11 separate works in the series is a composition -- a series -- of three photographic prints. On the left, a print of a vertical series of stills from 16mm film Lewenz's grandmother, Ella Arnhold Lewenz, took in Germany in the 1930s. In the center, a photo the elder Lewenz took of destruction in Germany

on a visit there just after the war (she had come to this country in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution of the Jews). On the right, a still from a video shot by the younger Lewenz on a 1987 trip to Germany.

This "collaboration," as Lewenz (though she never knew her grandmother) aptly calls it, has connotations that the artist drives home with great effectiveness in the images here.

"We Are Our Own Demons" shows on the left a street with a sign reading (in German) "Berlin, the capital of the Reich, salutes our leader [Fuhrer]"; in the center, partially destroyed buildings; on the right, a sign bearing the inscription "Adolf-Hitler Platz," which Lewenz photographed in a Heidelberg pub in 1987.

"I Want to Understand: What Do I Think of Love?" shows Albert Einstein on the left (photographed in Berlin in 1931), people walking past a pile of rubble in the center, and on the right, a detail of a painting of Mary mourning the dead Christ.

In "The Absent One," on the left of a photograph of a Berlin street after the war, is a shot of people traveling from Germany to America on shipboard; on the right, empty chairs. The right-hand picture in another work shows an exposed roll of film confiscated from a journalist during a riot when former President Reagan visited Germany in 1987.

The empty chairs and Einstein are reminders of the humanity and the greatness lost to Germany because of Hitler. The Hitler sign from a pub and the shot of destroyed film attest that what fascism stood for has not completely died.

On the other hand, the intergenerational collaboration here reflects the good side of bringing back the past, and Lewenz's rescue of her grandmother's work (she found the film in an attic) has brought a human being back from the dead and made her life more significant than it would otherwise have been.

The inescapable interrelationship of the past and the present, for good and evil, reverberates through this series.

Lewenz, however, has added to the images text panels bearing quotes from various German authors as gathered by Roland Barthes in the book "A Lover's Discourse." These are unnecessary, and add an artificial, largely extraneous and somewhat affected level of intellectualism to a series that has quite enough levels without them. They do not significantly detract, but this powerful series would be leaner, cleaner and more powerful without them.

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