Critics’ Picks

View of “Corin Hewitt: Seed Stage,” 2008.

New York

Corin Hewitt

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
October 3–January 4

“What is he doing?” I overheard several viewers stage-whisper while watching Corin Hewitt work within his enclosed installation, a kitchen and workshop—with a root cellar and compost—cluttered with tools and props, including a hotplate, a refrigerator, a band saw, a printer, Plasticine, the Dictionary of Gastronomy, and various jars of canned vegetables. Peering through the narrow apertures between the walls, I impatiently observed him keeping an eye on a pot of boiling water and fiddling with some vegetables. The viewers’ inquiry was not the usual armchair complaint concerning the inscrutability of contemporary art. It asserts that, from such a performance, one expects an action producing some effect.

Hewitt’s performance/installation evokes Bruce Nauman’s longtime exploration of the psychological space of the studio, as well as the 1960s-era Back to the Land movement—particularly in Vermont, where Hewitt was raised and where he harvested the root vegetables in this show. His new work also elegantly refers to Roland Barthes’s theories on photography, time, space, image, and object, as investigated in his seminal text Camera Lucida (1980). Hewitt’s performance is a bit more Mr. Science, however, as he putters around, transmuting materials through culinary experimentation, sculpting, and recycling with a serene, sincere smile.

A color spectrum winding around the upper perimeter of the installation suggests that Hewitt’s activities are a means to their photographic end: Peculiar digital pigment prints and Polaroid still lifes have been added and removed from the gallery walls outside the structure (a reason for return visits). Frequently a riot of pattern and color, these pictures depict comestibles in various states of manipulation and decay, indistinguishably conflated with inorganic materials to create visceral and compelling hybrids. Though one can understand Hewitt’s desire to create a context for his photographs, it is these images, and their accumulation, that produce the most striking effects.