On Beauty, Objects, and Dissonance
Artist Leslie Hewitt's photographs are somewhat like mis en abymes, or, as the French writer Andre Gide believed, “self-reflexive embeddings,” which are achieved by being scenes within scenes. Her aesthetic inquiries have taken her from the physical space of sculpture, through the world of photography, to the ethereal yet somehow very present world of film.
Hewitt’s images, which began in the physical realm of sculpture, evince a narrative tension between personal iconography and images found in newspapers, magazines, books, and other items of material culture. On March 30 at the American Academy Hewitt discussed these productive dynamics, explaining how the placement of her compositions can yield new insights or provoke questions concerning into one's relationship to personal memory, public and political history. In so doing they see photography perform, as Roland Barthes reminded, its own kind of abstraction from reality, even if it looks just like it.
"What if each time we look at a photographic image, we understand it as a physical manifestation of where light meets surface, where fields of color meet texture?" Hewitt asked. Back-dropped by a selection of her works from the past several years, she pressed, “What if we understood a photographic image as an abstraction of facts, extracted from life in its fullness and dimension? I understand photography as a compressed version of the world, funneled through a monocular point of view." Hewitt’s point of critical and artistic focus is an interrogation of the photographic platform that enacts her "desire to reveal several perspectives at once, to construct a kind of super-vision."
The evening’s presentation, delivered in front of a packed house at the Hans Arnhold Center and moderated by Henriette Huldisch, an associate curator at the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, was a deft tour through the artist’s works and some of her influences, including the sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark, a figure best known for his site-specific artworks in 1970s (he died in 1978), including his "building cuts," in which he removed sections of floors, ceilings, and walls of abandoned buildings. Matta-Clark documented these enormous, three-dimensional works in photographs, Hewitt’s point of departure.
"I find myself skirting between the illusions of photography and the undeniable physical presence of objects," Hewitt said, because "I want to strengthen and build upon an acknowledged relationship with an active viewing audience." For this reason, some of her large-scale photographs, as in her "Make It Plain" series, are positioned against
the museum wall rather than hung upon it, welcoming two-dimensionality into three.
But it is not only dimensional slippages that interest Hewitt, who studied sculpture at The Cooper Union and Yale, witnessed in her multiple interrogations of historical moments and how they are presented. "I am interested in the slippages that occur in this space," she said, "between individual and collective moments of recollection and the mediation of such moments in culture." Curious visual queries abound, and they guide the viewer between the false space of the photograph, the constructed time of its genesis, and the actual physical space of its presentation.
These spatio-chronological questions have led Hewitt, quite naturally, it seems, to film -- which, after all, is an abstraction from three-dimensional space and a compression of natural time. Film, as such, is a way of "moving from an exploration of flatness and dimension in still imagery to the tension between still and moving imagery," she said. At the American Academy this spring, Hewitt is working on a dual channel film installation of silent vignettes, whose genesis was by an invitation to view the Adelaide de Menil Carpenter and Edmund Carpenter photography archive at the Menil Collection, in Houston, Texas. It is there that one finds stunning images documenting mid-twentieth century American life in black and white. Longtime documentary photographers Bob Adelman, Dan Budnik, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, and Danny Lyon found their way to urban cities and southern towns, and even abroad during and before WWII to record Americans of African decent in their most challenged and celebrated moments. Hewitt, working with cinematographer Bradford Young, used the Menil collection to imagine what wasn’t seen or pictured at the time through their subjective lenses, to alter our view and visual consumption of Civil Rights-era imagery by looking at such a landscape through a contemporary lens. Hewitt and Yound did so by returning to some prominent locations -- Memphis and Chicago -- in order to take in a previous era’s visual, political, and emotional landscape as it stands to date. During her presentation, Hewitt stopped time (leaving the audience in complete silence) as a stunning preview of the film's beautiful, emotionally charged, yet displaced footage unfolded.