Chancing into Charlie: Dialogue with artist Charlie Hewitt by Daniel Kany

On a hot July morning, I stepped  into Ace Hardware in Falmouth for some silicone rubber sealant. While I was standing in line to pay, I noticed a bunch of small works by Erin McGee Ferrell. I picked one up to take a closer look. They were small, thick panels with collaged painting, heavily glazed with polyurethane. They were on sale at the checkout counter for $40 each.

Wall sculpture by Charlie Hewitt, 2018. Photo by David Wolfe.

I was impressed.

I’ve met Erin, who, some years ago, moved to Falmouth from Philadelphia. She’s a strong and highly energetic painter and I like her work. I asked the man ringing up my silicon if he knew anything about the panels and so we started chatting. I noticed a pretty big guy at the next register watching this interaction closely. He looked like a typical working stiff: white hair, dark t-shirt, glasses and some pretty serious ink on his left arm. So, I said to him: “You should get one of these. They’re good and for $40 it’s a deal.”

“Oh, I have plenty,” he said.

Sure you do, I thought, doubting. “So, are you an art person?” I queried, but more as a polite conversation starter than anything else.

Turns out, he was Charlie Hewitt. And he not only owns a bunch of museum-worthy art, but his own art lives with the giants in many of America’s leading museums.

I had known Charlie’s work from a show at the Bates College Museum of Art from about 10 years ago that featured his prints. (Bates has an extensive collection.) More recently, I had become familiar with his large installation pieces in Portland and Lewiston and the work on view at Jim Kempner Fine Art, his Chelsea gallery in NYC. I was particularly interested in meeting him since I had just heard he was slated for a solo show at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick, one of the most consistently excellent galleries in the state.

We went out for a quick coffee and the conversation immediately became fascinating: Charlie came across as allergic to bullcocky and patent commercialism. I hadn’t fully responded to his work in the past, but having connected the dots between his prints and his sculptures, I had, prior to meeting him, gotten the idea that was more my own shortcoming as a viewer than his as an artist.

Charlie Hewitt, “Caypso,” woodcut. Photo by David Wolfe.

As the art critic for the state’s newspaper of record, I write about art rather than artists. But, considering my own personal reevaluation, he had risen to the top of the list of artists I actually wanted to meet in Maine. I would like to think of this as a chance for both of us, but, in all fairness, it was I who was rewriting his script, not Charlie. It was a work day for both of us, however, and so the coffee klatch was break-time quick.

Charlie Hewitt is a Portland-based printmaker and sculptor who grew up in Lewiston. He has major public sculptures from his Urban Rattle series installed in NYC as well as Portland and Lewiston. He recently completed a major solo exhibition at ICON. (It was an excellent exhibition; I regret not having been able to fit in a review as part of my weekly newspaper art critic gig.) Hewitt is no slouch. His work is featured in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the New York Public Library; the Brooklyn Museum; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; and, among other public collections, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

Installation view of Charlie Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON

We picked the conversation back up at Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON. We were joined by gallerist Duane Paluska.

Over coffee, Charlie and I had discussed how artworld communications had changed over the years. (Charlie looks about 60, but he’s in his early ‘70s.) With the shifting roles of galleries, social media, and the way commissions now come about — we talked about how that affects the way artists like Charlie communicate with their professional contacts. And as an artist from humble Maine roots who somehow along the way found his way to success, I asked him what was the role of dialogue in his working with gallerists, curators, art dealers, the press and the public. The short answer was that styles of communication had certainly changed but were now changing at an even faster rate what with social media and changes in both how galleries operate and how the art audience interacts with art. (And yes, that starts with the internet and goes everywhere from there.)

When Duane joined us — and Duane knows me well as an art critic who regularly reviews his exhibitions — we primarily talked about Charlie’s art in the show. Ironically enough (or not?), Duane had set up “conversations” between the works in Charlie’s show, alternating prints, paintings and small sculptures so that they visually interacted and echoed each other. And to be clear, Duane is one of the most demanding and exacting exhibition installers in the state; he is one of Maine’s leading sculptors and he’s been running his gallery for well over 30 years. While this idea of “conversations” between the different media (prints, sculpture, paintings) shouldn’t surprise the reader, I have known Duane for a long time and it was the first time I recall hearing him discuss an installation in these terms.

Duane Paluska and Charlie Hewitt at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick.

In other words, we found ourselves dialoguing about the dialogue among Charlie’s works in a conversation curated by Duane. The shapes, forms and approaches certainly enriched each other; and, yes, I was impressed. For example, Duane’s wall on which he starts his numerical numbering system for labels (no wall labels, just number pins and a printed sheet) is tilted, and the piece on that wall is a wall sculpture with somewhat tilted planes, including neon forms. Here, again, the conversation pivoted and Charlie explained how he worked with several different “neon artists” to create the elements he asked of them. (Charlie gives such folks full credit and I admire him for that; particularly because you can imagine he treats them with complete respect as artists in their own right rather than as his “fabricators.”) These new neon pieces indeed complete the conversation among the work: The sculptural forms of metal, after all, match the physical forms of the wood and metal supports that Charlie has long used as a master printer.

Duane and Charlie discussing Charlie’s exhibition at ICON Contemporary

Charlie’s prints reveal a fundamental quality of prints that are made with broad forms in 4, 5, 6, or 7 or so plates: They build up on each other, layer placed upon layer. For even the average viewer, this step-by-step reveals the linear logic we typically associate with narrative. Moreover, the way these tactics are revealed to the viewer echo dialogue: This form falls on top of that form, it came after; it is a response to the prior plate. In fact, this is a quality of painting that reveals the visual intelligence of the painter. But with painting, it is far harder to unpack. Yet we can often sense the stroke or the the form or the gesture that punctuated the thing, delivering it to its final sense of completion.

Not surprisingly, Charlie’s paintings go deep with this logic. The forms surge out over each other subtly, but we can feel that printmaker’s sense of gesture: in the sense that gestures comprise entire layers of the image. (Photoshop is based on this layer logic.) In the combined strength of his painted forms and his proclivity for a narrative sense, however, we can directly sense the lessons of his teacher and mentor, Phillip Guston.

While Charlie generally spoke about his art in terms of hard work and formal terms readily apparent to the viewer, I was caught off guard (I have to admit, I was “rattled” — and, yes, I think the irony is Charlie’s rather than mine… but back to that in a minute) when he told me about his longstanding fascination with the implements of the torture of Jesus on his brutal trek to Calvary. In art (and Christianity), we know these from the 14 Stations of the Cross.

Charlie grew up in Lewiston, a leading center of Maine’s Catholic communities. In his 2006 essay about Charlie, then-Bates Museum of Art director (now the director of the Portland Museum of Art), Mark Bessire wrote about Charlie’s commitment in his iconography to church, family and work.

Where I had seen swizzlesticks in Charlie’s tall rattle works in Portland, Lewiston and NYC, I suddenly saw brutal tools and crucified forms… cruciforms, if you will. Charlie never stated this directly to me, but suddenly the idea of these shapes being cut out (and then made 3D, attached, etc) with flaming torches… well, even if that wasn’t Charlie’s direct intent, the effect of his saying it was something I couldn’t shake, and it was surprisingly dark and moving.

Charlie Hewitt’s “Neon Cloud,” 2018. Photo by David Wolfe

For a diver, going deeper means holding your breath. Getting the best kernels of dialogue often means that as well: hold your breath… and listen. If hadn’t spoken up to that anonymous guy I later found out to be Charlie Hewitt, well, I might certainly be still in the dark. Moreover, I love art as much as I do in part because I let the artist’s work speak to me. Sure, I write about the work; I break the silence with my written language. But I always listen first. I even try not to read the marketing materials before I get my own take on what the work says on its own. The way of a professional art critic, in other words, is not the right way: It’s A way. I get reminded of that often. And I was particularly glad in the case of chancing into Charlie Hewitt.

 

Brushes by the Bushel: In the Studio with Henry Isaacs by Daniel Kany

Henry Isaacs’ Portland studio is an open and airy place filled with tiny painted sketches, canvases, piles of tubes of Gamblin oil paints and tin after tin crammed with hundreds of paintbrushes. The walls of the studio’s front room are filled with colorful and affably optimistic framed landscapes painted in Isaacs’ easily-recognizable style. The walls of his studio are covered with about a dozen paintings in process and scores of studies ranging from full size canvases to tiny squares dolloped thick with oil paint.

This is the story of why Isaacs has hundreds of uncleaned brushes sticking out of tins in his studio. It’s a cautionary tale.

Having travelled and taught around the world, It might not be surprising that a Maine artist like Henry Isaacs would have partied on a bus in Cuba with Jacques Derrida (well, sort of: the French philosophe was stiff and grumpy in the midst of the joy of others) or sat in a meeting with a brain like Jeremy Bentham’s. Bentham, after all, founded the University College of London, and Isaacs taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, the art school of the university spiritually founded by Bentham.

Henry Isaacs in his Portland studio.
Photo by Dan Kany

During the last decade, you would most likely have spotted Bentham in the halls of UCL. But Bentham, the spearhead of philosophical utilitarianism, is now visiting the United States and he is featured in “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now,” a show at the Met Breuer (through July 22, 2018).

On June 6, 1832, the day Bentham died, the terms of his will established a continued “life” for him as an “auto-icon.”

And when I say Isaacs sat in a faculty meeting with Bentham’s brain, I literally mean Betham’s brain — chemically preserved in a large jar.

However wacky this may sound, the comparison between Bentham and Isaacs is anything but. While teaching at Mass Art in 1988, Isaacs rushed to help two men who accidentally spilled a pair of 50 gallon drums of Butanone during a delivery.

Butanone is also known as methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, a widely used industrial solvent that smells like a combination of butterscotch and acetone.

One of the men immediately left the scene. Isaacs helped the other. For this helpful gesture, Isaacs was rewarded with chemical narcosis, meaning he was poisoned to the point of passing out.

Isaacs in his Portland studio. Photo by Dan Kany

Another token of his helpfulness was a lesion on the top of his brain, which was pickled, to a certain extent, like Bentham’s. This condition took years to discover and then years to find a treatment which finally took place in Sweden. (Saab Aeronautics recognized and treated what they call “painters’ disease.”)  Isaacs has had to absolutely minimize petro chemicals from his life.

For a while, Isaacs worked in acrylics, but the quick-drying plasticky paints didn’t allow for him to push the paint around on the canvas, to paint the way he preferred to paint, with thick strokes pulled through wet paint already on the surface. He tried pastels as well, but found them too dusty,

Isaacs’ Portland studio. Photo by Dan Kany

Isaacs had met Bob Gamblin while teaching at the Slade. Gamblin, whose company was based in Portland, Oregon, was trying to market his new paints and no one at the English school even wanted to talk to him, so they sent the junior American professor to meet with him. Gamblin and Isaacs hit it off from the start. In 1991, Gamblin created a new paint recipe using pure poppy seed oil and sent samples to Isaacs. (Isaacs has found that paints even by the leading brands contain solvents even when they are not listed; such exposure is dangerous for him.) “Bob rescued my studio,” explains Isaacs. “From that point, I have used Gamblin paints. And now, his pure poppy seed recipe is the stuff that’s in the marketplace.”

Isaacs paints with vegetable oil from the grocery store and never washes the Winsor & Newton brushes he buys in bulk for the less than $2 each. Ultimately, he breaks them up and recycles what parts of them he can. “I use brushes by the bushel. I have to.” With this, Isaacs pulls a brush dripping with oil out of a tin and wipes the thick dollop of grayish blue goo from its bristles. Without hesitating, he pushes it through the thick paint piled on his palette and begins to rework a small picture of the underside of a bridge. The wet paint is buttery and Isaacs moves the brush about the surface with wizened confidence.

Because painting with pure oil can make the works take weeks to dry (“Alone, Bob’s paints take three to five weeks to dry,” he comments), Isaacs uses tiny amounts of Galkyd. He cannot use turpentine, Turpenoid or driers.

Some of Isaacs’ “notes.” Photo by Dan Kany

“I am compulsive about painting every day,” he notes. Pointing to a wall filled with 150 tiny, loosely painted canvases, he continues, “For every project I do, I make 50-100 of these little guys – hundreds of these ‘notes.’ These are for a project for a hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. These are beautiful schools, madrasas. I am working on making a huge painting that captures this kind of interior space made 2D. As far as my studio practice goes, I work from these ‘notes.’ I take no pictures. I rely on them even from years ago. These (he points with his brush) were painted on site four years ago.”

On another wall hang 75 of Isaacs’ “notes” he made in Guatemala in May. He muses: “These are little pieces of memory. My job, here in the studio, is to put them together.”

 

William Irvine on Regionalism

“Hauling In the Fog” oil on canvas, 32 X 36 inches

Maine has its own character, soul if you wish. I felt it the first morning I woke
up in Maine, in an A-frame on Tom Leighton Point in Washington County, lobster
boats droning off shore, gulls crying, the smell of herring bait. A smudge of islands on the horizon. I had arrived from Scotland, and our two souls bonded. It was love at first sight.

As my work developed, it seemed to be formed by those two places: the
white fishermen’s houses of Jonesport and the whitewashed farms of Scotland; the presence of the Atlantic, sometimes moody and turbulent and other times fresh and clean as linen sheets.

“Girl With A Boat”, oil on board, 12X16 inches

So I worked with those visual stimulants, but the depiction of landscape is
never the end intention. For the creative artist it is the vehicle through which he
expresses something more universal, the landscape of the mind, where we all live no matter our physical location.

John Marin’s seascapes are not just about Maine scenery; “The Written Sea”
comes to mind, a favorite of mine. Marsden Hartley’s paintings of Mount Katahdin
are presences that go beyond Maine—they have the grandeur of a Tahitian god or a Greek hero, like Heracles.

So does it matter where we live? I think it does, for each artist finds his
comfort zone, a place he feels connected to. Van Gogh in Provence, Marin in
Addison, de Kooning on Long Island. It is a place that allows us to communicate
with our surroundings. We use the props at hand, be they hills or harbors; in my
case, clouds, islands, and boats. But are they any different from cypress trees, vineyards, and wheat fields? The trail of a lobster boat echoing the horizon is just,
for me, a necessary line in the composition, which strengthens the final expression.

“Heading Out 2” oil on board, 25×35 inches

Artists talk to their surroundings, but not in any local language; after all,
artists are forever from away.