Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time (7 of 10), 2006–2009, color photograph, 30 x 24".

Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time (7 of 10), 2006–2009, color photograph, 30 x 24".

Leslie Hewitt

Institute of Contemporary Art

Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time (7 of 10), 2006–2009, color photograph, 30 x 24".

There was something disquieting about Leslie Hewitt’s recent exhibition, titled “Riffs on Real Time,” which featured a sequence of ten highly stylized photographs by the same name, and a sleek installation, Untitled, 2011. Each of the photographs (all 2006–2009), while offering unique pictorial content, had been made using a single compositional template. A primary image (culled from sources such as the monumental archives of American history or the minor registers of personal histories) is centrally placed on a larger book, photo, or other document so that the image appears framed; in turn, this arrangement is photographed laid out on a hardwood or carpeted floor, which adds yet another frame. Also “riffing” on the premise of “same but different” was the photo installation Untitled, in which a large starch-white slab had been propped against the wall, scaled to the dimensions of the gallery’s doorway. Here, Hewitt’s iconographic and conceptual choices echoed her previous bodies of work, as she likewise insinuated this particular offering into the material legacies of the 1960s and 1970s.

According to the ICA’s didactic literature, Hewitt’s strategy of layering images, confounding them with objects, and obscuring their original context reveals “how we rely on photography to provide our memories of personal experiences, to frame our understanding of who we are, and to shape and preserve our collective memory of historical events.” This broad statement could easily refer to many practitioners who critically engage the photographic message—one defined by Roland Barthes as occupying both a “spatial immediacy” (being-there) and a “temporal anteriority” (having been-there)—or its indexical condition, described by André Bazin as a quality in which “the photographic image is the object itself.” But then how are Hewitt’s ambitions different from those of Carol Bove or Sara VanDerBeek, contemporaries who are also grappling with the photograph’s capacity to capture and communicate earlier instances of sociopolitical struggles (often similarly using hybrid display strategies to dispel the myth of an “originary moment”)? And what are the stakes of resuscitating this problem today through the well-honed and, some might say, compliant “genre” of Photoconceptualism?

Writing in the pages of this magazine last year, art historian Huey Copeland made a compelling case for Hewitt’s contributions to “the project of black memory,” positing that she conjured “alternative visions of black life” as “contingent configurations.” In this context, Riffs on Real Time (7 of 10)—an image of the Soweto uprising in South Africa, partially obscured by a snapshot of African Americans at an outdoor social gathering, photographed together on a hardwood floor—makes visible the intertwinement of everyday life and the struggle for racial equality. Nearby, Riffs on Real Time (9 of 10) suggests intermingling dynamics of local and global forms of oppression by juxtaposing a black-and-white photograph of an airplane interior (showing a passenger reading a newspaper on which the word empire is immediately legible) overlaid by a color photo of people boarding a bus in a gritty metropolis, all of which is shot against a blue shag carpet. The mélange of images, documents, and objects from high and low sources, none of which are identified, transforms Hewitt’s imagined public into historical bricoleurs, invited to animate each picture according to their own individuated and improvised inclinations. By implication, we might say that history has no meaning without the viewer’s presence in real time, and we are shown here the apparent impossibility of maintaining any single or static visual archive of radical dissent.

This exhibition confirms Hewitt’s rightful place among a generation of artists confronting the historical legacies of the 1960s through a proficient amalgamation of artistic strategies that test the premises of the photographic condition. It also raises the perplexing issue of what happens when formerly radical strategies have been tamed and naturalized into a generational style.

Nuit Banai