On view in Leslie Hewitt’s recent exhibition at SculptureCenter, an untitled 2012 installation consists of white metal sheets that have been dog-eared or otherwise folded. The sheet-metal sculptures—some standing upright, some laid on the ground with a single part bent upward—appear to alternate between three and two dimensions as viewers circumnavigate them and look from different angles.
Such ambiguity also appears in the photographic and moving-image works included in the show. The diptych Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again (Distilled moment from over 73 hours of viewing the Civil Rights era archive at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas), 2012, consists of two lithographic prints of similar images—showing the back of a woman’s head amid a crowd, partially blocked by a man’s shoulder. To make the images, Hewitt used a micro lens to zoom in to a historical photograph (or perhaps two of them; it’s unclear whether the images are from the same shot) from the Menil archive cited in the title, abstracting the source material into constellations of pixels. Whether a parade or a protest, the context is illegible. If not for the title, we might never connect Hewitt’s quietly banal depictions with the Civil Rights Movement. Offering a counterpoint to photojournalistic images that privilege spectacular scenes and iconic figures over the day-to-day workings of ordinary activists, Hewitt asks us to reconsider histories of 1960s black life and protest.
The Menil archive—which contains photographs by Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, and Charles Moore—extends the legacy of the de Menil family’s support for civil rights causes, which included donations to a Black Panther chapter in Houston and sponsorship of “The De Luxe Show” (1971), the first of several racially integrated art exhibitions that appeared at the time in response to black artists’ protests. Re-presenting fragments of these pictures alongside works like her stark sheet-metal sculptures, Hewitt implies that late modernism, Minimalism, and 1960s political consciousness were not just concurrent but were deeply imbricated.
Lately, Hewitt has been drawn to filmmaking, collaborating with cinematographer Bradford Young. Their three-channel video projection Stills (2015), on view in the exhibition, brings together various types of imagery: depictions of grids of glass windows and distant skyscrapers, shots of the infamous “Shirley” cards used to calibrate color and skin tone (favoring white skin), a sequence of introductory film leader displaying a ticking numeric countdown. Some of the material was drawn from the work of director Haile Gerima, a prominent member of the LA Rebellion, a loose movement of black filmmakers and documentarians that arose in the late 1960s. Stills references its own materiality as it oscillates between sharply focused and tactile, flickering footage. Hewitt and Young present perfectly composed still-like shots, only to break the illusion with quick flashes and fades, undermining the desire for coherent meaning.
The duo’s Untitled (Structures), 2012, presents extended interludes of everyday moments. The two unsynchronized channels divide attention between pairs of shots—held for roughly fifteen seconds each—filmed at sites significant to black American history, such as Memphis’s Beale Street Baptist Church and Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Headquarters. In the stillness of each shot, it takes a moment to notice miniscule movements that occur—blinds softly rustling in a window, a man climbing slowly up a flight of stairs. Strip away the typical framing stories, nostalgia, and easy clichés of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration, Hewitt seems to say, and you will find the promise of alternate narratives, the quietly resilient in the utterly mundane.
For Leslie Hewitt, the photograph is a schizophrenic thing, alighting somewhere among image, surface and object. Such irresolution is central to Hewitt’s practice, which melds a cool conceptual idiom with the warmth of personal effects and a loose commentary on race, gender and class.
In this show, her first at Sikkema Jenkins, Hewitt presented selections from two ongoing bodies of work: a 2013 suite of 10 C-prints from “Riffs on Real Time” (begun in 2002)—shot on film, then scanned and printed digitally—and two digital C-prints from a new series, “Still Life,” inset in maple frames and angled between floor and wall. True to her training as a sculptor, Hewitt understands the camera’s frame less as a window onto the world than as an opaque surface on which to arrange objects, her act of taking a photograph contingent on a prior act of curating. She shoots her subjects—worn books, vintage magazines, grainy photographs and plywood squares—en face, centered in the frame and illumed with a single light source. Arrayed on her studio’s floor or shored by its wall, they occupy a shallow field in the pictures and are invariably sharply resolved. Nesting rectangles within rectangles, Hewitt privileges horizontals and verticals, abjuring those diagonals that would furnish perspectival entry into the plane. Her pared compositions hold the viewer at the surface, while gesturing outward to the containers—both immediate (the picture frame) and environmental (the gallery space)—that bind them.
Hewitt’s “Riffs” depict a book or a page from a magazine, sometimes torn or folded over, bordered by her studio’s russet-colored floor. Atop each rests a blurry snapshot, its reds too saturated or its blacks dulled by yellow. Culled from the collections of friends and acquaintances, these images date to the heyday of the American civil rights movement: the long 1960s, hemmed by the tail end of the ’50s and the abortive first years of the ’70s. Their conjunctions are oblique, the deliberateness of Hewitt’s selection belied by the snapshots’ amateur casualness. Mappable events—Riff (3 of 10) shows an excised page from a report on the Kent State shootings—mingle with the quotidian: a gathering of modish black women on a suburban lawn, in Riff (5 of 10), or a floodlit view of the Hoover Dam at night, in Riff (1 of 10). Such images act as ellipses, suggesting narratives that the viewer must complete. In Riff (8 of 10), Hewitt places a faded still of a building labeled, in narrow type, “Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center” on top of a closed, neon-blue book, whose title the picture occludes. Working in the overlap of reading and seeing, Hewitt hints at her own experience as an African-American woman, if only by way of metonymy.
Like the Pictures Generation artists whose legacy she elaborates, Hewitt frustrates notions of the photograph as a decisive moment, endowing her collages with a multiple, discontinuous sort of time. Far from settled, visual meaning, Hewitt argues, is perspectival, inflected by context and filtered through the prism of the present. Her attraction to secondhand materials, often foxed and exaggeratedly dog-eared, is less about nostalgia than about a concern with the ways in which everyday use conditions meaning. Hers is appropriation at a second-generation remove, stripped of irony and committed to material presence, as the inclusion of two drywall panels, fit to the dimensions of the gallery’s storefront window and matched to the white of its interior, made clear. The first propped against a wall, the second buttressed by a column, the two panels pointed to the white cube as photography’s ultimate frame, dramatizing Hewitt’s otherwise understated concern with spatial and discursive enclosures.