Louise Lewis brings the whole world to Cal State Northridge.
As director of CSUN's art galleries, she organizes unorthodox art exhibits that reflect cultures from all over the globe, as well as Southern California. In the process, she is contesting established notions of what is considered art.
Since she became director in 1980, the gallery program has become more varied, "in the sense that it is not specifically contemporary Western art coming out of New York, nor is it the traditional folk arts, nor is it strictly non-Western as you would see in a traditional anthropological museum," Lewis said.
"It's a melange, and that's because of my growing sense and personal perception of art as being really a part of life and not having narrow confines to define it. I test the parameters of what art is and challenge viewpoints and ways of seeing, my own as well as others.
"The most common criticism I hear is, 'Well, it's very eclectic.' And there was a time when that was considered sort of an insult, but I'm used to being insulted."
Lewis said that doesn't stop her from thinking that open perception will be accepted on a broader basis.
Last fall, the main art gallery presented "Saris of India." Currently on view is "The Chinese Heritage: Five Contemporary Perspectives," which includes the work of three artists from China and two Los Angeles-based, American-born artists of Chinese descent.
Next month, the photographs of Guy Crowder will be on display. A photojournalist since 1960, he set up a news service 25 years ago that supplied photographs for the Los Angeles Sentinel and The Wave newspapers, among others, and Jet and Ebony magazines. His archives provide one of the most significant collections of images of the Los Angeles African-American community.
Last year, the gallery exhibited voodoo flags from Haiti and a Mexican folk art exhibit from the portion of Nelson Rockefeller's collection that is now in the collection of San Francisco's Mexican Museum.
Gloria Jaramillo, deputy director of the Mexican Museum, said Lewis "is really a dynamite person. Her commitment to the arts is wonderful. She brings a certain objectivity and openness to them that is much needed. Her energy level is fantastic, it's infectious. She's taken the mission of her gallery, put her individual stamp on it and run with it, showing diversity and making everybody feel they are part of the system."
In the past, Lewis has also done shows on the history of the toaster culled from several personal collections, and on fly tying, creating the little insect decoys that are used for fly casting when fishing.
"That's a very illusionist art," she said. "A book was published by the curator, and we got lots of coverage, including Sports Illustrated."
"People still talk about the toaster show," said Philip Handler, CSUN's dean of the School of the Arts. "I'm very pleased and proud of the work of the CSUN Art Galleries. Louise had brought in aboriginal painting before it was shown anywhere else. Through her, we're showing art that people don't usually see, and wouldn't see at major museums. All of these shows speak to the needs and interests of our community."
Lewis and her gallery staff, Ann Burroughs and Jim Sweeters, have been reaching out to an increasingly diverse community on a shoestring budget--the 1992-93 exhibitions budget is $28,500, the 1991-92 budget was $33,500, and the 1990-91 budget was more than $36,000--and "the resources of a very large, cosmopolitan metropolitan area," Lewis said. Through contacts on and off campus, Lewis tracks down in-kind contributions, such as curatorial services or collections lent to the gallery at no cost, to augment the budget.
The student community, and the greater San Fernando Valley identity, "has changed radically in the last 10 years, with population changes and greater diversity," she said.
Lewis, 52, who has master of arts degrees in French and art history from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, began teaching art history at CSUN in 1972. A tenured professor since 1978 who still teaches every semester--last fall, "Forms and Ideas in Humanities," which focused on the culture of India; this term, "The History of Graphic Arts," a course she originated there--she finds her classes today are filled with students from Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Korea, India, Mexico, and Central and South America, as well as African-American students.
"I see my gallery work and my teaching as a partnership," she said. In the classroom, "as I was going with a more traditional, orthodox, modernist point of view, I was becoming narrower and narrower in perspective and feeling more and more constrained. Also, I didn't feel as effective, because as I was looking at my classes, I kept thinking, this doesn't mean a thing to anybody nor will it mean anything to anybody afterward. They have no contacts with which to relate all of this. Let's get this in a broader context.