An Ongoing Investigation: Interview with Corin Hewitt

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Corin Hewitt, Installation view, The Grey Flame and the Brown Light, 2010, Burlington City Arts, Burlington, VT, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Laurel Gitlen, New York. Photo: Raychel Severence

Corin Hewitt recently lectured at The University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, in conjunction with their Visiting Artist/Scholar Lecture Series on February 5, 2013. Hewitt’s multi-faceted practice utilizes performance, sculpture and photography and incorporates natural and artificial materials. He has exhibited widely, including solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, and most recently at MOCA Cleveland in January 2013. He is represented by Laurel Gitlen Gallery in New York and teaches at VCU in Sculpture + Extended Media in Richmond, VA.

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I had the pleasure to sit down and talk with him beforehand. Below are excerpts from our conversation, where we discussed his use of photography in relation to his performance and sculpture, the paradoxical nature of experience and representation, the intersection of his practice and teaching, and his advice for young or aspiring artists.


Rusty Wallace: So why do you use photography, in particular, as kind of a capturing device, or an abstraction of this living sculpture?

Corin Hewitt: Well, for me the history of photography is a way to grasp at the materiality of the world and hold it in stillness and suspend it in time. It’s a really interesting history—especially coming from somebody who primarily started by making objects. A lot of my early experience came from thinking also about controlled views, or frontality, and the kind of classical notions of the sculptural object. You know, up until the Renaissance, before sculpture became “painterly,” the idea was that every sculpture had a primary view, a front—that you could have a sculpture with a front. So, when I started making sculpture in college, and I began thinking about this problem, I’d often take a singular image that would be shown alongside the artwork as a way to challenge the frontality. And often, sometimes it really was a primary view and sometimes it explored an aspect of front-ness or back-ness or side-ness of an object. That often became a conversation with spatiality, how sculpture operates in space.

Corin Hewitt, Installation view, The Grey Flame and the Brown Light, 2010, Burlington City Arts, Burlington, VT, courtesy of the artist and Laurel Gitlen, New York. Photo: Raychel Severence

RW: Yeah, I like the tension between control and this kind of happenstance interaction, with a complex use of perspective. Now art can take most any form. It can interact with life, or be life, or take on any seemingly ancillary aspect that 50 years ago might have been considered completely out of bounds.

CH: Except I feel like I have no interest at all in relational works. For me, the separation between the experience of life and the experience of an artwork is crucial. Because we can’t experience representation, unless it’s defined, in my mind. I really try to make a clear delineation between life and art. Even though much of my art is drawing from experiences that I’ve found in my life.

RW: Right.

CH: But the experience of the artwork is always one I’m really interested in. I really believe and have faith in the art experience. And for that reason, I don’t imagine really doing work where it pretends or has a facade of normative life.

RW: Yeah, because that’s the paradoxical nature of representation and experience.

CH: Right, exactly.

RW: Can you talk a little about the intersection of your art practice and your teaching?

CH: I come from a long line of teachers and artists. My grandfather was a high school art teacher, my father was a very, very well-respected painter and professor of painting at The University of Vermont, as well as at Cooper Union and at Cleveland Institute of Art. He died quite young but was a really brilliant thinker about art. My mother studied art and became a toy designer, and she ran an educational toy company making open-ended block systems for many years. So, instead of running from that legacy, I found the only way to live comfortably with it was to absorb, really absorb it, into my practice.

One of the legacies that I’ve inherited, and sometimes I talk about it as though I’ve taken over the family store. It’s like the American tradition is to start at zero. But, I think about other cultures, especially European ones, as often having much more absorbative historical space, where they maybe start at one. Zero is a paradoxical space; the space between zero and one is infinite, you know? No finitude and no beginning. So, I think, for me it seems I’m starting at one and that’s actually a really productive space where you can absorb history—part of the genetic mechanics of who you are, in terms of your family and with the physicality of yourself and all of that. So teaching became something I needed to do. But I felt like I really needed to explore the world before I could spend time with people talking about it. And, I didn’t want to start teaching early, you know. I didn’t even want to go to grad school early. I wanted to have as much time trying to understand what it was to make art…

RW: Right, yeah.

Corin Hewitt, Installation view, Wall, 2010, Western Bridge, Seattle, WA, courtesy of the artist and Laurel Gitlen, New York.

CH: Early on I thought I wanted to go to grad school, and I applied to Cal Arts, enrolled and then dropped out before I actually started. I ended up going to Germany for a year to spend some time in a school there, where there was a non-degree program in Karlsruhe. I came back and spent about eight years in New York before I started making work and showing it. I developed a practice that felt sustainable before going to grad school at the age of 33.

I knew that I really wanted to teach, I felt like I still wasn’t ready. Plus I really wanted to challenge my practice, to come to understand what I had made, under a lot of scrutiny. And…

RW: Right.

CH: At the age of 37 I started teaching adjunct for a couple of years at Tyler, and at SVA. And I’m teaching at VCU now. I feel like I’ve gone into teaching as a way to learn more. And, it’s not about giving back—that may happen—but it’s really more about an investigation. I feel like I probably learn more from the students than they learn from me. It’s really exciting at this time in my life to be doing that, and I feel fulfilled. I’m in a place where I have a lot of support and that allows me to really lead with my practice, which feels very important to me to have that be central to my work—both as a model to my students and a way to actually be in a state of tension. I worry if I went many years without my studio being at the center, I would start to become polemical. Empathy can disappear and authority can happen in a dangerous way…

RW: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly.

CH: And, I really want to be on a kind of emotional level of anxiety with the students that I’m teaching, where we’re both in states of tension with what we’re doing…

RW: Yeah, that discomfort is essential to actually moving forward… (laughs)

CH: (Laughs) Yeah, and I like for them to actually feel like it doesn’t just get easier…

RW: I think that’s refreshing to hear, because there’s a lot of mythology and a lot of unspoken ideas and pressures as an art student, that if left unchecked, can be really damaging to the development of that student once they graduate. And then what? Are they equipped, are they empowered? Or are they, you know, a slave to all of these ideas?

CH: Are they setting themselves up for failure? Because, if the idea is getting to a point of authority, it’s a very dangerous thing to have too much authority as an artist. You know? If you believe you have authority, it’s pretty dangerous.

Corin Hewitt, Installation view, Seed Stage, 2008-2009, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, courtesy of the artist and Laurel Gitlen, New York. Photo: Sheldon C. Collins

RW: To that point, is there any advice you would give to a young artist, or an aspiring artist, or someone that’s been out of school for an extended period of time and is, kind of trudging on?

CH: I don’t know if I can give advice. The only thing I have found to be really productive is to really, really give yourself over to a community of artists that you believe in. And just focus your energy being in conversation with other people that are of similar faith, you know. And, that community is so central for support, for a sense of purpose, for a sense of audience, for a sense of participation, for a sense of awe about what other people can make. That community doesn’t have to all be living people. You know, that community can be people in your imagination, they can be people in history…

That’s the only thing that I’ve found that’s sure in its sustenance.

RW: Interesting. Yeah, that’s one thing that I talked about when I taught is that it’s easy to take for granted the community that comes along with school and, so then, what do you do afterwards?

CH: Right.

RW: That’s one of the biggest challenges.

CH: And that community also includes competition. I actually think some competition is a little bit healthy.

RW: Sure.

CH: I mean, I feel I find myself competing in my mind with, with many artists that are not alive, (laughs) you know. I can rise, and potentially transcend a problem that another artist may have faced.

I want to take on this problem that an artist began, and I want to be able to take it to another place, and make it so…well, you can’t win it, but you can definitely carry a kind of baton.

Corin Hewitt, Installation view, Seed Stage, 2008-2009, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, courtesy of the artist and Laurel Gitlen, New York. Photo: Sheldon C. Collins

RW: One thing that has stuck out in my mind, as I continued my personal journey since grad school, is something that I read in an article—I think it was written by Lawrence Rinder in Art in America. He was giving advice to artists and saying there’s a mythology that you need to be in New York to have any connection to the art world, or to have an art career that’s viable. He countered that with the idea that you should live where you’re able to make work and continue that practice, and that would be magnetic. Do you have any thoughts on that?

CH: Yeah, I think it’s such a hard issue, because it depends who you want to be in conversation with. If you want to be in conversation with artists that are living in New York, then it’s probably helpful to be in the same space as those artists.

RW: Sure.

CH: So, it’s people…it’s people in the end. I always just encourage people to ask themselves, “Who are you interested in? Who excites you the most?” Go towards that.

RW: More of a gesture towards authenticity, and what’s valuable to you, rather than maybe going up against some preconceived notion of what an artist should be or should be doing.

CH: Well, because success in that way is an impossible thing to chase. It’s just impossible. It’s like a riddle. So many artists I know have had successes at various points in their lives. And there were people who, at 24, seemed like they were on the rise. But then, by the age of 30, no one was interested anymore.

And, if they didn’t maintain that kind of support and interest of those people around them, they found themselves really alone.

RW: Sure.

CH: I think it’s really important to find a way to have a sustaining group of people, wherever that is, and just be aware that if you’re starting to do well, that that could end tomorrow. But, that’s not what it’s about. It’s really about finding a way to be close to others that have good energy for you—supportive and interesting energy.

 

Rusty Wallace is a self-employed visual artist living in Athens, GA. He taught college art and has been a visiting artist at several colleges and universities over the past decade. Wallace is passionate about the empowering potential of education. He also enjoys training and racing his mountain bike throughout the southeast.