Born in Vermont, Hewitt studied art at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Karlsruhe, Germany, in the mid-aughts after graduating from Oberlin College in 1993. In 2008, he was an artist in residence in the Whitney Museum’s first-floor project room. He built a white cube within the gallery, and at each corner made an opening through which visitors could peer at a chaotic installation in which he was often, though not always, present. The experimental tableau was titled Seed Stage, a reference to the work’s incubator atmosphere, its organic materials and its performative aspect. Indeed, the piece had the feel of a laboratory, with the artist engaging not only in mundane activities such as cooking, eating and reading, but also tending to boxes of worm-filled compost, planting vegetables from the seeds of those he’d eaten or adding scraps to boxes of mulch.
Hewitt’s work is rooted in the idea of recycling, both ecological and artistic. The leavings included not only fruit and vegetable matter but also photographs that he was shooting continually while in the space. Creating maquettes and still lifes from whatever materials were available, including half-eaten squashes and modeling clay, he then shot photographs and printed them on site, mounting those he deemed successful on the walls surrounding the installation (the castoffs were chucked into the compost bin). The number of prints grew over the course of the show. The idea of recycling was not only literal, in terms of reusing matter, but also conceptual, alluding to artistic production as an ongoing process of mining his own work in order to constantly generate new objects.
In 2010, Hewitt built a hybrid stage/floor for the Burlington City Arts gallery, placing plants and soil native to Vermont underneath. He spent two days a week during the month of July working with, in a manner similar to that of Seed Stage, the objects he had assembled. The installation, which was titled The Grey Flame and the Brown Light (derived from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color), also vaguely recalled Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1971), although the activity Hewitt was engaged in beneath the floorboards was not of the prurient sort. Instead, he was scanning the surfaces of rocks and vegetation, using them to create a series of digital photographs. While he began with the various browns and grays of the scanned organic materials, Hewitt went on to supersaturate his images digitally with single colors. He then “fed” the prints back into the piece by thrusting them into the soil under the stage, where they degraded before being removed; though still dominated by a single intense hue, they also presented discolorations and atmospheric-looking damage that were a result of the chemical action of the soil. These altered objects were then scanned and made into a suite of digital pigment prints, titled “Recomposed Monochromes."
Of course, as is true of all performances, the evidence of Hewitt’s activities is mainly photographic. His photographs operate not only as documentation of the performance and installation but also as art objects that turn the entire exhibition into a machine, as it were, whose only function is to provide a framework for making photographs.
IN HIS 1931 ESSAY “Proust,” Samuel Beckett wrote: “But when the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general nature and detached from the sanity of cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and only then may it be a source of enchantment.”11 Beckett was writing about Proust’s resis- tance to the force of habit, to the way that habit deadens our perceptive faculties. When an object is isolated from the circumstances with which it is generally associated, we look at it anew, with fresh eyes and understanding. The artists discussed here are, in a sense, making two art objects—one that is meant to be destroyed, and another that is a record of the destroyed object. The objects depicted in these photographs do not exist in real time or real space, only in reproduction—and their absence alludes to what is, in photography, a fundamental condition. “Detached from the sanity of cause,” the photograph becomes a source of enchantment.