Lewiston-born painter, printer, and real-estate developer Charlie Hewitt left Maine to live in New York for many years. Now back in town, he is opening his first solo show in Portland in a decade, in the Congress Street building he bought and recently finished renovating into art studios, exhibit space, and condos. The Phoenix caught up with him and found ourselves talking about learning to use scissors on his paintings, immigration, and keeping Portland vibrant. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
What can we expect from your show at whitney art works?
There’ll be a mural, some smaller prints, and there might be one big painting. I do all types of work and I think the show will be faithful to that. The paintings are thick. I take painting very seriously. It’s where I go when I’m dark. The other work is more playful and confrontational. The vinyl prints are hot and part of an external dialogue whereas I work on six or seven paintings a year and keep going back to them scratching and scraping into them.
Is the mural site-specific?
The mural is created from vinyl cuts blown up in different scales and placed on the wall. They’re individual pieces. I’m doing it to challenge the print. Traditionally, a print needs to have a matte and some glass; prints are accommodating. Photography has the same problem, all packaged. These pieces can be aggressive because I pull them out of my paintings, there are no edges and no glass between you and them.
How did you arrive at this method of enlarging your paintings?
I found a kid at Kinko’s at three o’clock (in the morning) in Hanover, New Hampshire, who showed me how you can do things with these new digital printers. I was used to, at that point, working with master printers. We’d have to have a big etching press, intaglio, aquatints. Meanwhile this guy with spikes in his hair showed me how to tile my paintings and blow it up to become an abstract distortion of what I’d made.
It was more interesting to me in some ways because it expanded the paint quality. I put them around the studio and tried to figure out if they were art or not because they were so generationally separate from my original. When I realized the benefit, I took scissors and began cutting the images out of the paintings. So there’s no edges anymore. My paintings are no longer an end; they’re part of the process to the other side.
Will you address the very distinct signs that show up as recurrent motifs in your work?
I was radically politicized by the Vietnam era and I never found myself wanting to get out of it. I need to keep the passion going without becoming a political bore. I don’t want it to be a rant. I delve into these images. Finding these images to stack and create totems. As they grow, they become signatures in my language. Then they begin to speak.