PRINT February 2010


Leslie Hewitt, Make It Plain (2 of 5), 2006, one of five color photographs and custom frames, each 60 x 84". From the series “Make It Plain,” 2006.

DURING THE PAST DECADE, signs of black dissent have appeared with increasing frequency in American artistic production—a phenomenon that is part and parcel of a larger turn among contemporary artists toward imagery of the 1960s and ’70s. Consider just a few of the more compelling examples: In a 2001 drawing, Sam Durant meticulously rendered a photograph depicting a dark hand stacking copies of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice; as part of an ongoing performative intervention, in 2005 Sharon Hayes walked through New York clutching her own version of the I AM A MAN poster famously held up by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968; and on a page in their untitled 2008 mixed-media mailing, the collective Otabenga Jones & Associates reproduced the famous image of an armed and enthroned Huey Newton, with the face cut out, asking readers to restore the Black Panther’s visage to its rightful place by selecting it from among those of seven other black activists.

To be sure, the aesthetic ends to which these visual references have been put are as varied as the ambitions, identities, and commitments of the artists who deploy them. Yet in all three cases, practitioners who came of age in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements are looking at the past both nostalgically and critically, attempting to retrieve vital figures that might freshly frame and challenge structural inequalities that persist even now. In the process, and like many analogous works by their peers, Durant’s, Hayes’s, and Jones’s projects concentrate on emblematic visual episodes from the recent history of African-American counterhegemonic production and, more specifically, on the possibilities and problems that the iconicity of those episodes creates for any politics of re-presentation. For while the remembrance of radical practices is crucial for liberatory visions of the present, the revivification of already known images is haunted by a cultural logic that spectacularizes black dissent, impoverishes the multiplicity of black life, and masks those processes of memory, history, and forgetting that would reduce black struggle to a series of minor scenes in the American narrative of racial progress. In other words, at issue is not only how to hold on to the past but also what exactly to hold on to.

These concerns come sharply into focus in the pictures, sculptures, and drawings of Leslie Hewitt, a New York–based artist born in 1977 whose approach to the historicization of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly with regard to the image, sets her apart from her thematic and generational cohorts. Take the second of five color digital photographs from her 2006 series “Make It Plain,” which takes its title as well as its visual imperative from Malcolm X’s oft-repeated admonition. The image depicts tattered copies of two influential paperbacks published in 1968: Joanne Grant’s anthology Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to the Present and the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Otto Kerner. Although different in their historical sweeps and their attitudes toward violence as a means of liberation, these books share an understanding of the inversely proportional relationship between exertions of white power and imaginings of black freedom.

Accordingly, in Hewitt’s arrangement, the volumes stand upright next to each other in the middle of the visual field, though their front-and-center placement is qualified by their simultaneous functioning as mere supports for a picture frame (or easel) that sits on them and leans against the wall. This internal armature dominates the composition, but Hewitt has turned whatever image it might contain away from the viewer (or covered it up). In so doing, she deflects our gaze onto literal representational effects within the photograph that are equally elusive—from the angled shadow cast by the frame to the ghosted white rectangle of paint perhaps left by another, now absent, image. As if to compensate for this slightness of incident, the artist appends two snapshots: a black-and-white photograph placed on its side atop the wooden structure and a color one resting on pegs aligned precisely with the top edge of the spectral image. Both pictures are casual affairs, with the feel of personal mementos, mainly depicting groups of colored folks whose getups are redolent enough of an earlier moment but by no means easily pegged to a specific time or place, let alone summed up by the crises that Grant’s and Kerner’s texts so exhaustively delineate.

The overall effect of the tableau’s rhyming misdirection is to draw attention to the contemporaneous discourses about and the still-relevant injunctions against black sociality—without, however, imposing them as the “truth” of these particular images or presuming to know how they shaped the lives of individual subjects on the ground. Rather than select for this purpose, say, the newspaper images of hosed-down demonstrators reproduced in Black Protest, Hewitt highlights vernacular photographic practices that conjure alternative visions of black life. Not content to target the brief intervals in which African-American politics perennially unfolds in mainstream narratives, she proffers the expansive envelope of everyday temporality. And instead of allowing a single image to sum up a specific time, she presents various pictures as elements in a scenario of her own production, so that earlier visual and textual discourses appear as they are lived with, pored over, and thumbed through, bringing fragments of the past into contingent configurations that newly open onto the historical record. Hewitt’s work, then, is animated by what political theorist Michael Hanchard has described as the project of black memory, which aims to keep “visible the actual or imagined experiences of black peoples that would have been otherwise forgotten or neglected.”

Leslie Hewitt, Right This Minute, 2008, concrete, board, binding cloth, paper, nail, 16 x 24 x 16".

Given the hegemonic disposition against it, such a project is necessarily halting and recursive, a fact underscored by Hewitt’s emphasis on serial production. The other still-life images in “Make It Plain” are similarly staged in a nameless locale and against the same unprepossessing background of white wall, dark wood ground, and spectral image, with an errant penny left behind to amplify the workaday reality of it all. Taken together, the photographs document the artist’s process of rearrangement: Some snapshots and books are rotated out and others are introduced into the equation. When a trio of works from this series was shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, two of them were spatially linked by another text, an actual copy of the twenty-fourth edition of Eastman Kodak’s How to Make Good Pictures, which served as a sculptural fulcrum for the installation as a whole. Hewitt’s self-reflexive deployment of this text—a guide for would-be camera wielders in print since 1912—not only indicates her critical posture toward the discourses that continue to position photography as an art of straightforward transparency, but also points up the importance of historical documents within her practice as resources and objects, and as models of the obdurate materiality with which she imbues the photographic. In Untitled (Capsule), 2005–2006, first- and second-edition copies of Alex Haley’s Roots form a quasi-Minimalist plinth hemmed in by boards from a disarticulated wooden shelf; Right This Minute, 2008, consists of a book nailed to a concrete block and opened to reveal the image of a black man in a suburban yard; and in I Wish It Were True—an evolving collaboration with William Cordova begun in 2004—some eight hundred videos, classics of Third Cinema, serve as both a monolith and a working library.

As these projects begin to suggest, the various sculptural, photographic, and site-sensitive aspects of Hewitt’s production share much with those of Carol Bove, Louise Lawler, and Renée Green, whose work in and on their respective media is likewise conducted with an awareness of their chosen forms’ art-historical unfolding, even as the artists orient us toward those forms’ current sociopolitical conditions. Percolating throughout these practices is what art historian Hal Foster has aptly described as an archival impulse, which has directed contemporary artists to search out the gaps within defining histories and to seize upon those disparate traces that might be spatially reconnected as, in Foster’s words, “construction sites” for the present. In their deliberative composition, Hewitt’s photographs record the pleasures and difficulties involved not only in mining the archive but also in expanding its purview by forging connections between the shards of black memory and dominant cultural narratives. This tension is at once pictured and cast outward by the images that constitute “Make It Plain.” As contingent in their composition as the visual apprehension of African-American culture they hold out, each of these large-scale photographs leans against the wall like one of its depicted elements, asking viewers to bend forward, to retrace the artist’s steps, and to contrast the image’s ideological framing of black dissent with that of the supporting institution in which it appears.

In Hewitt’s work, the photograph en abyme functions as an indexical coding of these relations of power and display and as a prop capable of reframing them, an ambition most eloquently and consistently worked through in her “Riffs on Real Time,” begun in 2002. At present, no fewer than three of Hewitt’s series, comprising ten images apiece, share this title, whose ubiquity pinpoints both the processual nature of her practice and one of its central gambits: the deployment of a repeated figure that provides a tightly controlled framework for the improvisatory analysis, interruption, and restructuring of historical time. Each photograph features a snapshot centered on top of a document—a back issue of Ebony, an old homework assignment, a map—that is placed on the floor and shot from above as if to mark and fix its belonging to a counterarchive. The backdrops of the 2002–2005 and 2006–2009 series, echoing Hewitt’s 2004 construction Like It Is, suggest the textures, colors, and tastes of a ’70s domestic interior, from the electric blue carpet of a family room to the compressed cork of a Day-Glo orange kitchen. In the pieces that make up the 2008 “Riffs on Real Time,” the drama unfolds in the space of the artist’s studio against the seemingly neutral ground of a worn wood-grained floor, but the resultant works are no less temporally evocative or culturally loaded.

The final photograph of that series features a stock black-and-white ’60s image of a black man carrying a briefcase up a flight of stairs, presumably to his desk job in a concrete modernist building. The figure’s attitude and the overall narrative thrust of the image, however, are significantly obscured by the snapshot placed upon it, which shows a green hillside viewed through an automobile window. It is through this simple act of layering that Hewitt’s rephotographs begin to vacillate. Taken as an incursion into the materiality of the sign à la John Baldessari, the color image nearly renders the man headless, severing his legs from his body while at the same time preserving him from the fate of becoming a nameless avatar for black progress in the era of civil rights. When read as a surrealist window, the superimposed photograph grants him a kind of psychic interiority, only to overdetermine its contents through a suggestion of the “natural.”

Leslie Hewitt, Like It Is, 2004, color photographs, glass, custom wood frame, 54 x 43 x 6 1⁄2".

The ambivalence of this Riff is generated by a formal registration and ultimate refusal of perspectival seeing: While the central placement of rectangles above or within each other is enough to imply procession into space, such access is always occluded, again turning the eye back to the conditions of representation. In this sense, Hewitt, along with so many present-day artists, might be said to take her cue from Robert Smithson, whose writings, drawings, sculptures, and non-sites consistently aimed to pull the rug out from under presumptions of visual transparency by literally materializing their conceits. Compare, for example, Smithson’s Pointless Vanishing Point, 1968, to Hewitt’s Grounded, 2004: The former is a fiberglass deconstruction of one-point perspective, the latter a ziggurat of brick-tiled steps. Both works appear to go nowhere, leaving the viewer stranded, though not at a loss. Like much of Hewitt’s sculpture, Grounded takes Minimal form “black to the future,” in this case, by fitting the work with a railing adorned with the Asante symbol for sankofa, a term that describes the necessity of going back in order to move forward.

It is this imperative that has informed the artist’s work, which, in dreaming up new forms of black memory, also suggests what might be entailed in redeeming our vision of recent American history: the formulation of images shaped as much by the flattening effects of the photographic as by the demonic forces of memory. In the writing of critic Siegfried Kracauer, these two terms are by definition at odds with each other. Aligned with a historicist imagination, photographs can only conjure the spatial coordinates of a unity that is now lost, while memory-images hold out the promise of history, compressing the truth of their subjects into monograms. In her photographs, Hewitt occludes the image so that memory can do its work; and in her drawings, she distills an object she has encountered—earrings, a pick, a cassette tape—into a single graphic figure. In After Images (Fixed), 2008, a grid of such figures is painted in gouache directly onto a wooden board, presenting an array that must be relationally construed and that only comes to mean through the force of re-collection. Here, as throughout her oeuvre to date, Hewitt’s ambition is to reveal the exigencies and possibilities contained in otherwise vanished moments of perception by brushing off the residuum of the photograph, under which, to borrow a phrase from Kracauer, “history is buried as if under a layer of snow.”

Huey Copeland is an assistant professor of art history at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.