Exactness: Leslie Hewitt

Leslie Hewitt and Francesco Tenaglia in Conversation


Walking through the rooms of the first Parisian exhibition of the American artist Leslie Hewitt, held at Galerie Perrotin last September, there was a sensation that was difficult to define except with the term “exactness.” It was less about how the new Riffs on Real Time (a series started in 2002), abstract chromogenic prints and sculptures resting on the walls or lying on the floor, showed confidence in where they were exposed, and more that the arrangement, in its entirety, seemed to trigger a subliminal and cumulative “effect”—almost neurologically—in the viewer. Here Hewitt talks about the relationship between sculpture and photography, and the balance between minimalism, conceptual inclination, and use of preexisting, connoted images in her practice.


FRANCESCO TENAGLIA: Tell me about the journey that led you to work with sculpture and photography. Do you see your approach today as an interleaving of those different media?

LESLIE HEWITT: My first love is sculpture. And even though I don’t work as much in sculpture right now, it’s particularly in my mind when I produce an autonomous object or image, and it is a completely seductive way of working. As soon as a child breathes air, hears sound, and opens her eyes, the next stage in development is to touch things and try to make sense of the physical world, not just of images. Sculptures live in that space of wonder—and gravity. I think it’s important to stress my first impression of these mediums, because at some point it became crucial for me to grapple with both sculpture and photography. Even though I admired photography—who didn’t, with all of the cameras and iconic images in the 1980s?—I didn’t immediately enjoy engaging in the photographic act. It has this effect of the real. It’s not in your space, but it’s alluding to space. My questions were more about the function of photography as a technology, its power in the larger social context, and the ethics of it. I have a catalog of certain images that are seared in my mind. Many of them are popular-culture references with social impact. Being a late-twentieth-century human being means to recognize that the image is front and center. It’s invasive and ever-present. To answer your question more directly, I oscillate between the two distinct disciplines only to find a small overlap that is very rich and deep and speaks to the transition from the haptic to the virtual representation of the haptic, which we engage with via the screen all day, every day, at this point in time.

FT: At what point did you get interested in the Pictures Generation?

LH: I had a wonderful professor of art history, Michio Hayashi, who introduced me to Sherrie Levine’s work. Even though it was an introductory survey class, we talked about power and authorship. Levine’s work—I found it so curious and powerful. Where’s her impression? Where is her touch in her work? It was very strong, as it spoke to the power of women or maybe reclaiming the power of women in art, but in such an unexpected way. My first encounter with her series After Walker Evans (1981) produced internal thoughts like, “Who owns what, really?” When you look at an image and make it a part of your memory, is that enough to say it’s yours, too? Even though, formally, I don’t think my work engages directly in this relationship with the history of art and appropriation within the terms established by Levine’s practice, I hope my work has a little bit of these important questions of agency. Who has it? Why? And for how long?

FT: Speaking about photography a moment ago, you mentioned the word “invasive.” Are you interested in a process that insinuates itself between technology and art? Or the commercial versus pure information?

LH: To start with the circulation of images: the pace at which we consume images today is something I try to work against. My images are very legible, yet illegible. You don’t quite know where you are in the logic of perspective, or the proportions of things, or the references, which in some cases are intentionally denied, and in others revealed. I want to reposition the viewer from passive consumer to critical reader to lexicon constructor. Part of my impulse for starting to work with an ongoing series was to question where meaning rests in an image. Whether it’s your personal image, a circulating image, an official image, an official portrait, a commercial image—where is it once it starts to travel, to move? Not only online, but as a material. My mode of collage or juxtaposition is about that act. Someone once asked me, “Why don’t you just show the objects themselves?” But it’s not about the objects; it’s about the representation of those objects in that particular situation, within that particular moment. “Well, do you own the objects?” No, I don’t want to own the objects. I just want to document the moment in which all of those discrete things had a relationship. To do that repeatedly means to start a conversation about the circulation of images and dislodging meaning as anything other than completely volatile. I think it’s a conversation about context. And context is always shifting, so meaning is always shifting. I think of my photographs as discursive, as documenting an aspect of discursive space. Liminal space.

FT: When you work with existing image material, there’s a form of self-containment. By that I mean, say, that 1970s pictures have a recognizable grain. A cut-up from Playboy from that time is a specific form of representation of women. Those images had some form of impermeability. They tell a lot connotationally, not just in regard to what they are saying but also in terms of the point of view they express. How do you relate to, or connect to, that point of view?

LH: The objects that I choose have a time stamp, so to speak. The first layer is always the snapshot that marks time in various ways via the color matrix of the film of the era and the materiality of the image, meaning how the image is printed and on what substrate. The second layer is a mass-produced element that is transformed via personalized or specific manipulation through touch—for instance, the oil from someone’s fingers or the folding of a corner of a page; little things that seem to leave a mark, a physical impression, on materiality. I’m interested in what makes a particular instance distinct from the other two hundred thousand instances made or printed of the “original” mass-produced object. The forensics, the less-seen but very real and biological traces scattered across the space that leave a kind of historical impression. I relate this “seen” and “less seen” status in an image to your use of the word “impermeability.” For instance, in the achromatic (black-and-white) photographs, materiality and legibility are transformed again, as the color matrix is no longer operational.

FT: A lot of your pictures have historical connotations—for example, they come from the civil rights movement. Is this something you relate to? Why are you attracted to this specific kind of material?

LH: Some people see that in the work because of my biography. I’m not saying that you’re implying this, but there is a desire to read a certain narrative into the work because I’m American, I am a woman, a black woman, a New Yorker [smiles], a daughter of parents who were active in the civil rights movement. Or, if you don’t see it, then the more formal aspects of the work are suspect. I’m interested in adding, not dividing. I would never say, “This is only about this.” It’s more interesting to intersect narratives and create a parallax of sorts. Living is so complex, and the desire to say that the human rights struggle only relates to the oppressed or disenfranchised actor in the film of life denies that, in reality, everything is interconnected. It’s more the case to say that several films are playing at the same time, overlapping and creating contrapuntal visual fields. That’s also how I understand Minimalism. This might sound crazy, but we should remember that Minimalist and Conceptual art were being made during the height of the civil rights movement, post–World War II, and during the Vietnam War. They’re not recused from what else was going on in the world. And I have the perspective—and, I would like to argue, a kind of responsibility—given that I’m from another moment in time, to look back and make a compressed space in which all of those seemingly distinct historical moments have relationships with one another. So, I have no choice to relate, and make other things relate, and more things relate, and so on.

FT: Do you think it’s possible to extricate oneself from the insularity of certain art-world discourses and do something actually political?

LH: Yes, certainly. For something to be political, something has to be at stake. Do I think it’s possible for artists to change aspects of the world? Of course. Is it only through the work that they make? No. It’s in what they do. Deeds, actions. How one moves in the world.

FT: I heard you worked for a time in a library. Is it fair to say that it made an impression on you in terms of how pieces of history can precipitate within an object that can be permanent or perishable?

LH: I am an introvert by nature. I can socialize, obviously, but I enjoy reading, sitting with knowledge, with history. I come from a family of avid readers, so I grew up with books everywhere. When I was first rejected from art school, I worked at a library for a year. It was work, but it also wasn’t work. You shelve books all day. You’re pretty much by yourself, but you’re with many other people who are also by themselves. I really enjoyed the functionality mixed with wonder and discovery. There’s a rationale for why books are shelved in certain places: DDC, LCC, CC, UDC. But the possibility to find something “other than” hovers, like the “rabbit-hole” metaphor or the one for “surfing”—spending time on the internet with endless data. 

FT: Tell me something about your passion for Dutch painting.

LH: It’s more about the genre of still life. While studying art history I was always questioning, “Why do they look so photographic?” Like, why do they seem so much about photography and time, and why am I looking at this wilted thing and finding it so beautiful? And of course, once you dive into that hole, it’s endless. You learn about the camera obscura, the history of optics. Some of the Dutch still lifes will have a composition consisting of an armadillo shell with a Persian rug , a pile of ground pepper amongst other intricately rendered items. The most insane setup. What were the artists doing? It’s a memento mori, sure, but it’s also about the beginnings of global capitalism and distilling or displacing labor, the extraction of value. The distillation of slavery, too. Amazing to think of vanitas still life painting as portraits of slavery or the subconscious denial of the horrors of slavery. That is fascinating to me. A document of material culture but also of consumption and a truly bizarre sublimation.

FT: Let’s talk now about the show at Perrotin Paris, which seems deeply connected to the venue. How did you conceive it?

LH: I had previously developed a system where I’d only show one, or three, or five, or seven of these works unless there was enough space to allow a viewer to develop a corporeal memory of each encounter. It needs to be spatial, not just pictorial. This was a beautiful opportunity to show this work because of the small, discrete galleries that you move through. It was about connecting to place, building a spatial memory by bodily means through walking, seeing, experiencing work through multivalent structures.

FT: And then in the final room, the series comes together?

LH: Yes, the system loops.

FT: You’ve twice used the word “system” in the context of this series. Tell me more about that aspect, and how those works are associated with the sculptural pieces.

LH: Repetition and the formal logic within the photograph are mirrored in the space and in time. This is the poetics implied via the title of the work, Riffs on Real Time, and in the mathematics of every situation. 



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