Corin Hewitt built a studio with four walls and a narrow opening at each corner inside a gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art this winter, so that anybody could come to watch him during museum hours, four days a week for three months, while he grew and ate vegetables, sculpted copies of the vegetables, photographed still lifes of the vegetables in various states of consumption, photographed sculptures, photographed his compost pile, and photographed other photographs, all the while hanging the new photographs in a changing display on the outside of the four walls—some of them landing in the compost pile after their debut as the artist reconsidered them, but all of them (the entire project, in fact) embodying the deeply humanistic proposal that making art is less like manufacturing and more like living, and that all the forms of reproduction and transformation in our lives are our way of holding on to the world while trying to prepare for letting go of it, since time is nothing but a machine of perpetual turning, and since standing still, even briefly, is our dream.
Hewitt's art is hard to get into words. A novel that begins and ends midsentence, like Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, would be more suited to it than a review. And any review as such would have to be long. Really long. But this is a newspaper. And you are doing something else right now, or will be soon. Hewitt's art is about that, too, actually.
What's at Seattle Art Museum is a hodgepodge formation on the walls that is only a half-show, a series of photographs shot using four different-format cameras in a performance in Portland in 2007, at a gallery where there was no room to display the photographs, so they are appearing here, two years later, forming a dislocated twin body to the other half of the project, that performance, which you now find yourself attempting to re-create, moment by moment, as you notice certain materials recurring in different forms in the photographs, like an actual half-eaten pear lying next to a sculpted copy of itself, or a patterned background made partly of a photograph of this same background in smaller scale, or a Klickitat basket in a picture next to a copy of it woven by the artist in pasta he's dyed with beet juice, strands of that same pasta then becoming his supper, which he photographs himself eating.
A smell hangs over these photographs. It's the same over-ripeness as in Dutch still lifes. (Still life is the smelliest genre.) Still, Hewitt's approach is as new as old, taking sculpture-performance-photography as a united front to be explored. Origins and reproductions are intertwined. A formative experience for Hewitt as an artist was seeing pictures of his father's autopsy.
Corin Hewitt has done three performances in all, and for each one he uses "Local" materials, taken from the particular place and time of the performance, like fruit from the local market or fabrics from the local Goodwill or pictures from the local museum, but he punctures the newness and foreignness by also bringing "Historical" materials, meaning materials that he has gathered over time, the same way a homeless person carries his home with him in a bag, and he provides both lists of materials in a new book (published by J&L Books) about the Portland performance, which serves as another form of the exhibition, reiterating the way that while you watch Hewitt perform you might wonder why he's arranging things that way rather than another way, or why he's shooting this and leaving that out, which inspires the feeling that he might have done anything, and still might.
There is much more to say. But Hewitt's magnum opus is composed of nonmagnificent moments and objects always only glimpsed in fragments. A reference might be made to the sculptor Richard Serra, who insists that ideal objects are nouns and verbs, ultimately undefinable except in flashes. Art like this can make you laugh and cry about living in a dying body if you think about it long and hard enough.