Leslie Hewitt, Reading Room @Perrotin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale color photographs, unmatted and framed in custom elm frames, and displayed leaning against the gallery walls in the main gallery space and the connecting hallway area on the ground floor. All of the works are digital chromogenic prints, made in 2019. Physical sizes are each roughly 52x82x7 inches and no edition information was provided.

The show also includes 5 sculptures made from powder coated sheet metal (variously sized from roughly 12x72x29 to 26x72x36 inches) and 2 wall interventions (no dimensions provided), all made in 2019. In the adjacent bookstore area, 1 gelatin silver print (from 2012-2017, sized roughly 38×31 inches) and 1 computer programmed screen (from 2019, 42 minutes) are on view.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For a relatively small slice of artists, one look at their work tells you that they are systematic artistic problem solvers. Their output feels the opposite of chance-driven, improvisational, gestural, or even expressively emotional; instead, there is a sense that through their art, we can observe the wheels of their minds carefully turning, each step leading to new aesthetic relationships, to precisely calibrated and logical progressions, and ultimately to potential solutions. These are artists who are thinkers, planners, and exactingly deliberate executors, whose intellectual firepower and structured rigor become the bedrock foundation for everything they create.

In her relatively short career-to-date, Leslie Hewitt has quietly but powerfully established herself as one of these highly talented, cerebral problem solvers. Almost from the start, she placed herself at the indeterminate overlap point between the mediums of photography and sculpture, and then proceeded to test the limits of how those two disparate artistic realities could interrelate. On top of that exercise in exploring form, space, juxtaposition, and physicality, she has consistently layered a thoughtful and far reaching examination of blackness, merging archival materials, personal snapshots, and historically important touchstones and symbols of black diaspora culture into a heady mix. Deceptively simple yet full of references and allusions, her works encourage (and require) the application of sustained effort to try to parse all of the ideas with which she is wrestling, and even then, she more often than not leaves us with unknowable open-ended mysteries. In a 2018 interview, Hewitt said “my images are very legible, yet illegible”, and this rings exactly true to me – as viewers, we attempt to decode her intricately packed ideas, but are often left with the feeling of having failed to entirely connect the dots.

While not a straight line progression, Hewitt’s career does clearly build on itself from project to project. In earlier works, she began by reconsidering the typical parameters of the photographic still life – such a picture is inherently a sculptural assemblage of objects arranged to be photographed, so she was immediately interrogating the in-between space between the mediums of photography and sculpture. Her images arranged books, paper photographs, letters, and other printed ephemera into layers that were then shot from above, creating telescoping geometries that nested inside each other; not only were the images formally complex, they created resonant juxtapositions and contrasts of materials related to the black experience.

Hewitt then went on to extend those studio assemblages further into three dimensions by piling the objects into fragile towers that leaned against her studio wall for support. She made photographs of these sculptures and then framed them in crisp wooden frames, but instead of hanging them on the wall, she set the bulky pictures on the floor and leaned them against the gallery walls, in effect, turning them back into sculptures that interrupted the spatial proportions of the gallery. Again, the contents of the studio gatherings made oblique references to black intellectual and cultural landmarks, and the physicality of the works smartly spun in on itself, oscillating between image and presence.

Hewitt’s new works continue with this same idea, albeit in a more pared down and overtly iterative manner. There are seven recent images in this show, and they are all subtly related – we can only assume that they were made serially or recursively. In each picture, a square wooden panel (the veining of the wood creating a soft vertical striping) sits atop a stack of books and leans against Hewitt’s white studio wall, the books providing a kind of pedestal underneath. Natural light fills the open space, and additional objects and paper images are introduced essentially one by one, not additively but largely via sequential replacement. Rocks (with flat polished sides), a conch shell (a symbol of power or authority?), a squiggly abstract drawing, photographs of skies, a twist of brass (a necklace or adornment of some kind?), and other items arrive and depart with each successive picture, rebalancing both the spatial relationships and the intellectual associations.

The books that support the assemblage are largely turned away from us, so we can’t see their titles, but there are two that face forward from time to time in the series and provide a place for our sleuthing to begin. The two books are Ark of Bones by Henry Dumas and Black Orpheus by Jean-Paul Sartre. Dumas was an African-American writer/poet who was killed by police in the late 1960s and whose career was resuscitated by Toni Morrison when she was an editor at Random House in the 1970s. The French philosopher and essayist Sartre needs less of an introduction, but Black Orpheus particularly tangled with the ideas of Eurocentric whiteness and the need for the self-affirmation of black imagination and black voices. So we see Hewitt offering us evidence of where some of her support (both physical and intellectual) lies, and then alluding to many other books of importance that go unnamed; in one composition the initial pile of books is joined by a second pile to the right, doubling the number of supports and making the sculpture more stable.

With these two books as the only overt evidence to latch onto, I will say that as a white viewer I was immediately made viscerally aware of my whiteness, my particular gaze (and its histories and embedded privileges), and the reality that as much as I might want to follow Hewitt’s train of thought, I was an outsider to this work. Being reminded of my ignorance of what the various objects might symbolize made me want to know more, but no answers were forthcoming from the pictures themselves, pushing me back to seeing the works as carefully controlled serial studies of form, proportion, and rhythm. But I know that’s not all that they are or represent, and that obliqueness (at least from my vantage point) is part of their power.

The show also includes a series (yes, that word again) of sheet metal sculptures that inhabit the center of the gallery, and a pair of thick wall fragments that lean against the existing walls like the photographs do. The metal sculptures resemble enlarged pieces of copier paper, each with two or more straight line folds that create angles and geometries that bend up from the flatness of the floor. On one hand, we might see these as simply office origami writ large, but in the context of Hewitt’s precise step-by-step thinking, they become something more interesting – we see her making one fold, assessing the proportions, dynamics, and changes to the space made by the object, and then making another fold, each time and each sculpture becoming a sequential or looped exercise in rebalancing the shapes, just like the serial photographs do. The works are elegantly systematic, almost like she is patiently experimenting with the language of space.

A software-generated work playing on a video screen in the Perrotin bookshop takes these ideas in a alternate direction, circling back to seriality, but this time probing the sculptural/intellectual duality of words. Individual words are slowly typed out letter by letter, each word filling the available white space on the screen like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle – some “scenes” contain just a few words, while others continue until the entire screen is filled with letters. What’s intriguing about watching the progression is how the arrival of each new word reorients the potential meaning of the ones already there, both spatially and conceptually. The work draws on the ideas of concrete poetry (where words and stanzas are shaped into physical images or patterns), but it also ties back to the layers of the African diaspora, via words that evoke geographies, leaders, emotions, and aspirations. Structurally, this work is just like the photographs or the sculptures – it is an iterative examination of adding and reimagining.

Hewitt’s works require attention and patience, and stubbornly resist a quick fly-by reading, but it’s hard not to come away mightily impressed with the depth of Hewitt’s artistic intellect if we invest the time necessary to watch what she’s doing with deliberateness and care. I think it is fair to argue that as a white man, I may be the entirely wrong critic to consider the merits of Hewitt’s work, and that a black critic steeped in the intellectual history of the diaspora would be much better equipped to evaluate the nuances of Hewitt’s thoughtful logics. What I can say is that her art undeniably resonates with the echoes of a highly structured and searching mind, and I nearly always find works rooted in that kind of intelligence to be durably provocative.

Collector’s POV: The new photographs in this show are priced at $35000 each. Hewitt’s photographic work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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