Bread to poetry and back again

Charlie Hewitt brings eternity's light to Whitney Art Works
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  February 28, 2007
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The art of Charlie Hewitt

“Workers need poetry more than bread,” Simone Weil wrote in her book Gravity and Grace. “They need that their life should be a poem. They need some light from eternity.”

“Red Harvest” — the title of one of Charlie Hewitt’s recent paintings — conjures up a lineage of straight socialist realism. The canvas itself takes us elsewhere. It opens into the thick of a world where labor and love function as twin figures, palpable forces using the same abstract language to cut into and tear each other apart. A length of jagged sawblade digs at speed into the side of a giant heart, massive and pulsing, aorta bursting, and the ground below it is an impasto blend of tire tread and gear chain.

The painting, bleeding and deep with a pathos that is real — it’s not feigned, it’s not staged, and so it’s a rarity today — on the face of it looks little like but nevertheless has everything to do with the terms of Northern Renaissance image-making. Its sky and space mesh to produce pure portent, straight-up apocalypse, a canvas where white and black and red can commingle without losing their lucidity or density, a horizon that, however vast it is, retains a human scale that somehow leaves some room for hope, which is after all the only hope.

“The spirituality of work. Work makes us experience in the most exhausting manner the phenomenon of finality rebounding like a ball;” Weil wrote. “To work in order to eat, to eat in order to work. If regard one of the two as an end, or the one and the other taken separately, we are lost. Only the cycle contains the truth.”

If it’s fair to Simone Weil to translate her lines directly into paint, then it’s fair to say that Charlie Hewitt has done it, shed some of eternity’s light on the innards of the interhuman intrigue whose labors make bread as well as poetry.

In his upcoming show at the Whitney Gallery, Hewitt has worked with Portland Color to develop a system for rendering selected elements, parts of his paintings’ personal iconographies, into reusable vinyl fragments that can be mounted directly on the wall. These will coalesce to produce a vast wall drawing, which will be paired with his India ink drawings of hands hard at work, split up and wrenched apart by the forces of labor and memories of labor. In the wall drawings, we see isolated tools of laborers and of labor — the hammer, shears, nuts and bolts and chains — no longer means to an end but the end itself, pure work and nothing else.

What happens to the work when you carve it apart? You live and breathe it all through the slog work process of bringing it to life on the paper, on the canvas. Is cutting it apart the way to see it afresh by making oneself and one’s hand disappear — much as Weil hoped when she prayed: “May I disappear in order that those things that I see may become perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things that I see”?

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