Leslie Hewitt: Sudden Glare of the Sun at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

[uds-billboard name=”hewitt”]Leslie Hewitt knows how to do subtle. Her decision to place her large, wood-framed photographs decisively on the ground around the gallery at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAMSTL), instead of on the wall, might not seem restrained. Displaying artwork on the floor is not new or even novel, but it is a way to declare that what you are looking at is not precious, is not above the viewer’s comprehension, and does not contain some kind of didactic truth. Right away, in the act of placing in lieu of hanging, we know that these photographs are not meant as straight documents, are not holistic records of truth, are not family heirlooms – are not photography as we might expect.

Rather, the seven photographs from New York City-based Hewitt’s series Blue Skies, Warm Sunlight show us photographs which allude, photographs which prompt us toward reconsideration of everyday objects. What makes the photographs’ placement so understated is that the images are of books, photographs, and other objects stacked in various positions on a floor, leaning against a white wall themselves, echoing the frame. The position of each object changes slightly from one photograph to the next, a book going from horizontal to vertical, a photograph moving from the floor to atop a book, creating a tension among the images, almost as if they were mixed up film stills while also being reminiscent of the quiet and calm of a Dutch still life.

Initially trained as a sculptor, Hewitt presents in her first major solo-museum show photographs which exude a confidence of formal quality, but Hewitt is by no means only concerned with form, though her attention to it is impressive. Hewitt is perhaps more interested in the particular meanings of the objects that she chose and how they represent culture. Look closely at the photographs and you’ll see that the book that keeps re-appearing is The Politics of Protest (1969), which explores anti-war and civil rights America in the 1960s. In a preview of the exhibition, Hewitt commented that for her, photographs are icons.  In terms of social history, she cited Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series as an example and inspiration of how an artist took popular imagery which shocked cultural values (unrestrained consumerism in the case of Warhol), altered it through silkscreen, and put the horrors on display.

Hewitt, as stated earlier, is much more subtle about it.  The presence of photographs within Hewitt’s photographs is testament to the medium’s iconic value and the same can be said for books. These documents of image and text define for the present and the future how societies view themselves and wish to be represented – often telling of family, cultural, and political woes in tangible, though not always definite, terms. By stacking and re-stacking these objects of social memory and history, the books, photographs, and domestic objects relay that there is no singular understanding of history and change, but rather that there is always a space for shifting our understanding, and it can be both definitive or more subtle.

The other body of work that Hewitt exhibits is A Series of Projections, 12 black-and-white photographs hung grid-like, this time on a wall. Hewitt shot her photographs from projections she made onto her studio wall of overlapping images from two appropriated sources: images of nature from the Bettmann Archives and original shots of domestic interiors. The resulting photographs have a striking quality of being dramatically present, but also ghost-like and are hung to mimic projections themselves. There are about three stock images from which the rest are derived, creating  a set of similar but different, almost-but-not-quite, photographs, analogous, Chief Curator Dominc Molon said in a preview of the works, to the filmic technique of the jump shot. As in Blue Skies, Warm Sunlight, there is the presence of the domestic (broken ceramics) and of the filmic (slightly changed positions of objects from image to image) which attest to Hewitt’s careful research, process, and choice of forms, which she has said are extremely important aspects of the work for her.  Such attention to detail pays off in images which offer clarity in some space between photography, film, history, and sculpture.

Hewitt is in engaging company: Jonathan Horowitz’s Your Land/My Land: Election ’12 loudly greets visitors in the lobby by dividing the room in two with a large blue and a large red carpet, and, in the middle, two television monitors continuously running news cycle from CNN and Fox News. Smaller, subtler, even delicate, but by no means tranquil is Lauren Adams: Hoard, an installation of custom wallpaper with Elizabethan creature imagery and gouache painting, addressing difficult histories of colonialism through seemingly innocent domestic objects. Rosa Barba: Desert – Performed is a stunning multi-media installation, centering around the medium of film itself, exploring notions of duplicity and material and geographical awareness; it includes the almost hypnotic looping film, The Long Road (2010), shot in the Mojave Desert. There is a sense of a cast of well-formed, knowledgeable, confident characters this season at CAM– artists who exude an energy that comes from knowing what they want and having just the way to say it.


Leslie Hewitt: Sudden Glare of the Sun and Rosa Barba: Desert – Performed continue through 30 December; Jonathan Horowitz: My Land/Your Land: Election ’12 through 11 November; and Lauren Adams: Hoard through 14 October at the Contemporary Art Museum, located at 3750 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO. See www.camstl.org for more information.

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