For her first exhibition at Perrotin Paris, the American artist Leslie Hewitt (born in 1977 in New York) presents a new set of photographs drawn from the series Riffs on Real Time. The set is accompanied by a new trajectory including colour grounds (unobstructed photograms and digital chromogenic prints) and minimalist sculptures.
Associating vernacular snapshots with archival documents photographed against textured motifs, the compositions that make up Riffs on Real Time are rooted in an idiosyncratic reaction to post civil rights and postindustrial americana
(1950–89). The complex arrangement of the material brings to mind Photoshop-based montages and the visual manipulations that are spread online, and invites us to question, in the tradition of conceptual American photography (John Baldessari, Allan Sekula, Taryn Simon, etc.), the power that we generally attribute to this medium, i.e. the power to bear witness to the past objectively, to shape our memory, to build a collective history.
Launched in 2002, the series Riffs on Real Time, shown at MoMA in 2009 and at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015, superimposes three layers of images. First, our gaze focuses on snapshots taken from the photo albums of Leslie Hewitt’s friends, relatives and associates, whose blurred, erased or worn outlines give them the aura of ‘relics’1.
But while their “original” meaning and particular context may sometimes escape the artist, each of these snapshots is placed on top of a larger document (covers drawn from African American protest writings, magazine reportage, governmental archives, etc.) that frames it and anchors it in a broader sociopolitical context, i.e. documents of such demands, marches and riots related to the fight for human rights – elliptical images that we have to complete mentally, since their centre remains obscure, prompting precarious free association.
Finally, a last layer, serving as a background to the whole, reveals textured motifs. These are the grooves in the floorboard of the artist’s studio, on which the two previously superimposed objects have been laid out and photographed from above. This third plan therefore opens up a dialectic field in which intimate and political iconographies, private and public spaces, personal and collective memories resonate off one another. A dialogue then emerges between history and History. Inspired by cinematic montage, this arrangement reminds us that the meaning of images, far from being intrinsic, depends on the way in which they are arranged and connected to one another. In that sense, the term ‘riff’, borrowed from the vocabulary of bebop, a jazz movement whose members were (Max Roach, Charles Mingus, etc.) actively engaged in the fight for civil rights, refers to the art of freely combining melodic and rhythmic elements in the structure of the solos.
Achromatic Scales, a brand-new black-and-white version of the Riffs on Real Time series seen at the Armory Show, reveals a new chiaroscuro aesthetic in the work of Leslie Hewitt, who has here ‘dechromatized’ the reclaimed colour photographs and documents. Working with an analogue camera and using daylight, the artist demonstrates the ambiguities of photography – a medium that can highlight a situation and render it visible, reveal it to our gaze, but that can also make it obscure, underexpose it and let it linger in the ‘black holes’ of history and memory. Leslie Hewitt therefore questions the way in which an event can be put forward or kept in the background in a country’s culture and official history. Criticizing the alleged objectivity of photography, commonly interpreted as genuine proof of ‘what was’ 2, Hewitt argues that each and every image only offers a singular and subjective perspective that attempts to influence our perception of reality – if only through framing or the angle from which the shot is taken. The compositions elaborated by Leslie Hewitt are thus void of chroma and combined with the chromatic filled grounds, whose golden, cyan or green-checked tones were carefully chosen to balance the texture of the silver gelatin prints in both form and concept. These monochromes together form a colourful selection, a tribute to the abstractions of the suprematists or the gamut of colour moving through digital space in perpetuity.
Playing on an interpretation of the Dutch vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century, Hewitt’s photo-sculptures like the series Still Life (2013) and Riffs on Real Time owing to the quality of their chiaroscuro and their studio composition, the assemblages draw on a approach to photography as object. Indeed, the layering of the images gives a rare depth to a medium that is generally reduced to its two-dimensional nature. The work on the textures and the retrieved materials contribute a certain volume to the whole, and render even more tangible the elements present on the surface of the pictures. Moreover, these photographs are accompanied by a minimalist sculpture made up of simple materials, copper and wood. Displayed on the floor, it shows us that the artist, who trained as a sculptor, has a willingness to engage in a materialist or formalist conversation with the vocabulary of Minimalism. Two on-site installations confirm Leslie Hewitt’s taste for the spatialization of materials. Two wall like structures duplicate, through their dimensions, the doors and windows of the second floor of Perrotin gallery. Adapting themselves to the architecture of the building, these sculptures rest on the floor and against the wall inviting us to question the role of formalism and the slippages found between representation and real life.
Art critic and lecturer, Photography Department Paris 8 University