“In anything that can be called art,” Raymond Chandler wrote in a 1944 essay, “there is a redeeming quality.” This is certainly true in the work of Lewiston native Charlie Hewitt. But his luminous paintings and sculptures, a selection of which are on display at Elizabeth Moss Galleries on Fore Street in Portland in “Charlie Hewitt: Bush of Ghosts” (until February 28) manifest more than just this quality. This is the heart of Hewitt’s work and what gives it meaning.
Hewitt is perhaps best known locally for the 24-foot-long light sculpture that hovers over Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue, spelling out the word “Hopeful.” It was installed in 2019, a deeply divisive time that Hewitt called a dark passage for humanity. “We need something a bit like a prayer right now,” he told writer Bob Keyes.
In more ways than one, it is reminiscent of Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” artwork, which was originally a Christmas card design for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965, but quickly became an ubiquitous icon. of 1960s idealism. Like Indiana, Hewitt draws inspiration from mid-century road trips on iconic American roads like Route 66, which were once punctuated with unique and creative neon signage.
Much like Indiana’s “LOVE,” Hewitt’s “Hopeful” is spreading to other cities. The artist has just installed another of these signs outside the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey. Whether that goes along with “LOVE” – which continues to appear on prints, greeting cards, postage stamps, sculptures and more – remains to be seen. But amid our ongoing contemporary dystopia, the sign’s message is irresistible.
Moss shows here only one of the signs of Hewitt. Called “Bluebird”, it is inspired, according to Moss, by a hotel in Maryland. It features a blue-winged bird flying over a black zigzag arrow that points downward, presumably to the location of the old inn.
Southern Maryland had several establishments with the same name – among them the Bluebird Inn and the Blue Jay Motel – which were rare places where black travelers could spend the night. It is not clear if Hewitt refers to it. But, if so, it would add dimension to what we might superficially consider a purely nostalgic sculptural exercise.
Certainly, at this surface level, the imagery conveys a wistful sense of Americana. But a closer look reveals that it’s not just colorful metal pieces welded together and lit up with red, white and blue bulbs. Hewitt paints the surfaces, creating a mottled depth one would not expect. It also imprints “Bluebird” with the touch of the human hand, which operates on subliminal emotional layers that a purely machine-made piece would not.
And then there is this bird. “Hope is a thing with wings,” Hewitt told me during the opener. The title creature of “Bluebird” is almost stubbornly positive, an avian embodiment of the sentiment behind his original light sculpture “Hopeful.” But a quick look around clearly shows Hewitt’s identification with wing imagery. In each painting in the exhibition, this is the dominant motif.
Hewitt, who studied in New York with Philip Guston, lived the alcoholic life of his circle of artists in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many drunken evenings were spent at places like the Cedar Tavern, the second incarnation of the legendary Greenwich Village Cedar Bar. The bar’s original inhabitants (Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock) had moved on, but the institution continued to be a gathering place for artists and writers such as Larry Poons and the critic Clement Greenberg well into the first decade of the 21st century.
Alcohol finally caught up with Hewitt, who was lucky enough to escape a vice that had lured artists for centuries. There are many historical examples. Among them, Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, terrified by absinthe; Francis Bacon, whose habit bloated and bloated him, eventually also causing neuropathy; and Pollock, who died in a car accident (which also killed his friend Edith Metzger) after driving under the influence. The point is, Hewitt is grateful for his redemption, and therein lies the redemptive undercurrent that runs through Moss’s work.
With the exception of “Red Rising”, we never see a complete bird. We only see wings (or hope, that “thing with wings”). They always try to break into the surface of Hewitt’s paintings. When they do, they do so through a surprisingly intricate array of layers of patterns and colors created with paint, stencils, and materials like tissue paper and rag fiber.
There are white wings, gray wings, red wings and black wings, and their positions on the different canvases do not seem to me to be a simple spontaneous coincidence. In “White Wing,” for example, the title gable hovers triumphantly above a black wing in the lower third. This is also true of “Bush of Ghosts”.
In “Yankee Ghost”, the wings are black, white and gray. The intent of the title is not articulated and no date is attached to the works, so I have no way of knowing when they were painted. Yet, seen through the prism of our current cultural conversation about – and the politicized polarity around – race, it seems to say something about the waning supremacy of whiteness as a world order.
However, whether my extrapolations from these paintings are actually true is ultimately irrelevant. What is clear about each of them is that the wings of most of these webs are locked in primordial struggles between opposing forces. Some wings soar like a phoenix, others dip towards the earth, others seem to explode in conflicting beats of activity. These Promethean-scale struggles are embodied in the contrast and juxtaposition of wing colors or, more often, in the way the wings seem to be trying to emerge under so many filters of visual experience.
Stencil patterns, paint washes, layers of fabrics and rag fibers function like films that obscure the purity of our visual experience and, by extension, our human experience. They are wispy, blurry overlays that confuse any final resolution.
The quest for clarity – or redemption – that unfolds under and between these layers testifies to a kind of dynamism of the universe, where truths are ambiguous and constantly changing. The technical dexterity displayed by Hewitt is dazzling, of course. The endless fascination that ensues as our minds attempt, mostly unsuccessfully, to decipher what’s above and what’s below (not to mention what it all means) creates a tension that pervades these works.
The meaning of the primal struggle twists in this tension. What’s going to happen ? Where will all this lead? Will good triumph over evil? Will we see the light? Can we be redeemed? Although they are beautiful, the way Hewitt’s visual language asks these questions is what elevates the paintings above the realm of something decorative.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Faith-Based Romance ‘Redeeming Love’ Hammers Out Not Subtle Message