On view in Leslie Hewitt’s recent exhibition at SculptureCenter, an untitled 2012 installation consists of white metal sheets that have been dog-eared or otherwise folded. The sheet-metal sculptures—some standing upright, some laid on the ground with a single part bent upward—appear to alternate between three and two dimensions as viewers circumnavigate them and look from different angles.
Such ambiguity also appears in the photographic and moving-image works included in the show. The diptych Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again (Distilled moment from over 73 hours of viewing the Civil Rights era archive at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas), 2012, consists of two lithographic prints of similar images—showing the back of a woman’s head amid a crowd, partially blocked by a man’s shoulder. To make the images, Hewitt used a micro lens to zoom in to a historical photograph (or perhaps two of them; it’s unclear whether the images are from the same shot) from the Menil archive cited in the title, abstracting the source material into constellations of pixels. Whether a parade or a protest, the context is illegible. If not for the title, we might never connect Hewitt’s quietly banal depictions with the Civil Rights Movement. Offering a counterpoint to photojournalistic images that privilege spectacular scenes and iconic figures over the day-to-day workings of ordinary activists, Hewitt asks us to reconsider histories of 1960s black life and protest.
The Menil archive—which contains photographs by Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, and Charles Moore—extends the legacy of the de Menil family’s support for civil rights causes, which included donations to a Black Panther chapter in Houston and sponsorship of “The De Luxe Show” (1971), the first of several racially integrated art exhibitions that appeared at the time in response to black artists’ protests. Re-presenting fragments of these pictures alongside works like her stark sheet-metal sculptures, Hewitt implies that late modernism, Minimalism, and 1960s political consciousness were not just concurrent but were deeply imbricated.
Lately, Hewitt has been drawn to filmmaking, collaborating with cinematographer Bradford Young. Their three-channel video projection Stills (2015), on view in the exhibition, brings together various types of imagery: depictions of grids of glass windows and distant skyscrapers, shots of the infamous “Shirley” cards used to calibrate color and skin tone (favoring white skin), a sequence of introductory film leader displaying a ticking numeric countdown. Some of the material was drawn from the work of director Haile Gerima, a prominent member of the LA Rebellion, a loose movement of black filmmakers and documentarians that arose in the late 1960s. Stills references its own materiality as it oscillates between sharply focused and tactile, flickering footage. Hewitt and Young present perfectly composed still-like shots, only to break the illusion with quick flashes and fades, undermining the desire for coherent meaning.
The duo’s Untitled (Structures), 2012, presents extended interludes of everyday moments. The two unsynchronized channels divide attention between pairs of shots—held for roughly fifteen seconds each—filmed at sites significant to black American history, such as Memphis’s Beale Street Baptist Church and Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Headquarters. In the stillness of each shot, it takes a moment to notice miniscule movements that occur—blinds softly rustling in a window, a man climbing slowly up a flight of stairs. Strip away the typical framing stories, nostalgia, and easy clichés of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Migration, Hewitt seems to say, and you will find the promise of alternate narratives, the quietly resilient in the utterly mundane.