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Nate Lewis didn’t train to be an artist. Instead, he went into nursing, just like his father.
It wasn’t until his final year of school that Lewis became interested in art—first music, then drawing—as a way to disengage from the stress of the medical profession. For the better part of the last decade, Lewis has been honing his artistic practice while working in high-stakes, emotionally draining intensive care units. He currently works as a registered nurse in the recovery area of the critical care ward at George Washington University Hospital.
His first solo show, “Biological Tapestries,” now on view at Morton Fine Art, features 16 papercut works that blend Lewis’ interest in human healing with artistic expression. “Biological Tapestries” is an outgrowth of the trauma and redemption he’s experienced in his work environment. The works are compositionally minimal, even austere—mostly portraits that are simple and straight on, printed on porous paper in stark black and white. Lewis then sculpts the paper by snipping, slicing, and perforating the silhouette of the bodies to create three-dimensional figures that emerge from the canvas.
Lewis’ medical training and saint-like patience from years of caretaking are apparent in his practice. The paper-cutting process is laborious and detailed; it often takes him up to 38 hours to complete larger works (the biggest piece in the show is only 40 inches by 26 inches). The surgical precision that Lewis employs is, for all intents and purposes, as necessary to the integrity of these bodies as it would be in a real operation—one false knife swipe and an appendage might be lost. The stakes, naturally, are lower when it comes to paper.
Not every paper sculpture depicts a body in its entirety, to various effect. Some of the works come across as a memorial in nature, such as “Save Me This Time,” which features a torso with arms folded across its chest, as if laid to rest, unable to be physically saved. Others are slightly macabre, even if not intended to be so, by focusing on one specific body part—like a singular arm, no body in sight.
None of the all-male figures in the portraits are named, although Lewis’ artist’s statement suggests that they represent the patients and family members he interacts with in the hospital. The delicately layered slashes and densely patterned pinpricks that make up the artist’s paper patients impart a material fragility, as if one more incision could do them in, leaving nothing but shredded paper behind.
Like the injured and ill he cares for day in and day out, Lewis renders himself similarly vulnerable within the series. For instance, “Glio” features a forward-facing portrait of the artist, his face increasingly obscured by leaf-like snips that continue multiplying beyond his head, across the blank space of the page. The title seems to recall a clinical case Lewis perhaps encountered on the job—a quick search for “glio” reveals that a glioblastoma is a fast-growing brain tumor.
By reimagining and embodying the maladies of his patients, “Biological Tapestries” seems like an act of extreme empathy on Lewis’ part. Yet his self-portraits are also redolent of martyrdom. Lewis must methodically puncture, cut, and slice his own body until his features are nearly indiscernible. His process is almost a form of conceptual self-immolation in service of those he cannot help.
But for all of its painstaking craftsmanship and empathic ideals, “Biological Tapestries” lacks the tenderness of real vulnerability and pain. Despite being a series wrought from reflection on moments of intense mortal reckoning and human compassion, there is a certain amount of clinical detachment. The figures—both whole and partial—remain upright and static, their bodies on display like a teaching cadaver. They are beautiful in their design, but ultimately interchangeable.
1781 Florida Ave. NW. Free. (202) 628-2787. mortonfineart.com.