The last time Corin Hewitt brought his art back to Vermont, it was easy for everyone to understand — or at least enjoy. Eight years ago, he placed an 8-foot-tall, 600-pound, cast-marble sculpture of “Today” show weatherman Willard Scott inside an unused silo in Richmond. The forecaster was gazing skyward with his hands positioned parallel to the ground, looking like the Buddha of meteorology.
This time, at Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery, Hewitt has created a funky, abstruse installation combining conceptual, process and performance art. Viewer responses have been mixed. Fleming Museum director Janie Cohen calls it “very complex,” while print artist Bill Davison, who has watched Hewitt develop from childhood, finds it “confusing.” But to Michael Jager, a principal at Jager Di Paola Kemp Design in Burlington, Hewitt’s piece is “brilliant and unique.”
For his exhibit, entitled “The Grey Flame and the Brown Light,” Hewitt has built a squat shack open on three sides with a sloping roof that limits occupancy to one: the artist, on occasion. Outside, the structure’s roof resembles polished-wood gym flooring that’s been randomly scattered with small colored areas as well as with computer scanners piled with rocks and dirt. Inside the lair-like space are more rocks and dirt, along with pine boughs, tree trunks, stumps, leaves, ferns and real insects.
When he’s crouched over a computer amid this sylvan clutter, Hewitt is scanning the gray of rocks and the brown of soil and then Photoshopping and super-saturating the colors into their quintessence. He prints out the results and hands them up and out through holes in the roof. Meanwhile, a video of what’s happening inside the brightly lit habitat is displayed on a pull-down screen in the center of the gallery’s back room. Hewitt’s installation also integrates allusions to four seasonal sports.
There’s more — much more. But, rather than read an even lengthier description, one might do well to follow the advice of Corin’s mother, Karen Hewitt: “You need to spend time with it. And if you’re not willing to spend that time, you’re not going to see anything in it.”
Some visitors are “perplexed” by Hewitt’s multifaceted, multilayered, multimedia piece, acknowledges Firehouse curator Chris Thompson. Davison, a retired UVM art prof, concedes he’s one of them. “It’s hard for most people, and that includes myself as an older visual artist who knows quite a bit about contemporary art,” Davison says.
Firehouse staff are there to help, however. After the gallery’s obliging docents offer an explanation of how the installation works and what it means, many of the previously clueless do become intrigued, Thompson says.
Should art be able to speak to an audience without a need for interpreters? And should visual art be, if not beautiful, at least visually engaging? The answers to those questions are subjective, but there’s no doubt some visitors don’t find much aesthetic appeal in Hewitt’s assemblage.
Jager, for one, does regard it as beautiful, even though in an interview he paraphrases Picasso to the effect that anything truly new will be perceived as ugly. “Good art forces people to see things in a new way,” Jager adds.
Thompson has a similar take: “Great art doesn’t lay everything out. It asks questions.” And the Fleming’s Janie Cohen sees something inherently courageous in Hewitt’s intellectually challenging art: “He takes risks in his work in terms of people’s ability to embrace it,” she suggests.
Hewitt himself says his Firehouse construction is partly “an exploration of what it means to have an identity of place.” Most of the materials underneath the gym-floor roof (itself a riff on Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium) come from East Corinth, Vt., where Hewitt, a boyish-looking 39, spent summers with his parents, Karen and Frank. The Firehouse show thus represents a homecoming, literally and figuratively, for an eighth-generation Vermonter named after the Upper Valley town to which he still periodically returns.
Hewitt has lived in Brooklyn for the past 15 years and has attended schools in Ohio, Maine and Germany. He’ll soon be moving to Virginia. Yet, he says, “I feel more connected to Vermont than to any other place.” It was clear at the show’s opening that many Vermonters feel connected to Hewitt, as well.
He grew up in a Burlington home of artists and teachers that was also a gathering spot for local and visiting academics and bohemians. They left impressions on young Corin, which is why “it was wonderful and also intimidating to have so many of my parents’ peers at the opening,” he says. “Their approval, or their relationship to what I’m doing, is something I want to take seriously.”
Karen Hewitt founded and still directs Learning Materials Workshop, a Burlington company that makes creative toys for kids. She also designs objects and sets for museums. Examples of her work were featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Stores in conjunction with MOMA’s recent Bauhaus exhibit.
Corin says his mother’s interest in children’s creativity helped encourage him to examine processes of perception. In turn, Karen says she was influenced by her son. “I was always interested in what he was doing when he played,” she remembers. “I learned a lot from watching him.”
Frank Hewitt died in 1992 at age 56, but “my relationship with him has developed since he’s been gone,” Corin says. Frank clearly exerts a powerful pull on his son, and those who know the father’s abstract, grid-based paintings can discern the legacy in Corin’s sensory installations. “I see many similarities in their work — the use of natural material from Vermont, the interest in color and perception,” says Davison, noting that he and Frank Hewitt were “really close.”
The elder Hewitt was one of three cofounders, in 1960, of the artists’ collective Anonima Group, whose members examined scientific phenomena as well as the psychology of optical perception. But Frank was strictly a painter “with a distinct disdain for any three-dimensional art,” Davison points out. He recalls that his friend often quoted abstract painter Ad Reinhardt in that regard: “Sculpture is something you bumb into when you back up to look at a painting.”
Frank Hewitt was also an alcoholic. When he died from complications of that addiction, Corin made sure to get prints of the autopsy photos. “I wanted to see the thing responsible for his end,” the younger Hewitt explains. And its physical causation, at least, was revealed in those images: an ulcerated upper small intestine.
Even if he might not appreciate the media, Davison suggests, Frank Hewitt would take pride in his son’s art and success. Corin has brought a big reputation home with him. His “Seed Stage” piece at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum two years ago was favorably reviewed by the New York Times, earning Hewitt considerable attention from other art arbiters. He’s accepted an offer to teach sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University because, he explains, “I have come to see teaching as an integral part of my process, not separate from it.” Hewitt is moving to Richmond, Va., with his wife, fellow artist Molly McFadden.
The food-focused Whitney installation, which the Times said “is about art returning to base matter,” had much in common with the Firehouse show — especially in its references to and reproductions of the cycles of “life and death, growth and decay.”
At the Whitney, Hewitt was part of his piece: He chopped and cooked vegetables, which he then arranged into sculptural forms that he photographed for inclusion in the show. The artist’s presence inside the structure at the Firehouse also has a transformational element. “I wanted to include myself as one of the states that was changing,” Hewitt says.
For Jager, both these installations set Hewitt apart from artists “who, in their work, come from some imaginary place.” The Firehouse and Whitney shows “express the roots of where Corin actually comes from,” he says. In these pieces, Jager adds, Hewitt is “creating a new level of symbiotic relationship between the organic and the technological. And that’s highly relevant to any culture that’s trying to stay in touch with its roots, but living in a technological age that you’d be naïve to deny.”