Famous Paintings

Art review: ‘Hopeful’ artist spreads his wings

Marquee sign "Bluebird," left, in Charlie Hewitt's "Bush of Ghosts" at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Portland.
Written by Noah Roy

Raymond Chandler wrote in an essay he wrote in 1944, “In all that may be called art, there is the property of salvation.” This is certainly true in the work of Charlie Hewitt of Lewiston. But his paintings and light sculptures, a selection of which are on display at the Elizabeth Moss Gallery on Portland’s Four Street in “Charlie Hewitt: Bush of Ghosts” (until February 28), do more than demonstrate that quality. It is the heart of Hewitt’s work and what gives it meaning.

Hewitt is perhaps best known locally for the 24-foot light sculpture that looms over Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue, spelling out the word “hope.” It was installed in 2019, a deeply contentious period that Hewitt described as a dark path for humanity. “We need something a bit like prayer right now,” he told arts writer Bob Keyes.

In more ways than one, it’s reminiscent of Robert Indiana’s famous work “LOVE,” which originated as a Christmas card design for the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1965 but quickly became a ubiquitous emblem of ’60s idealism. Like Indiana, Hewitt was inspired by mid-century car travel along famous American byways like Route 66, which were dotted with unique creative neon signs.

As with the Indiana movie “LOVE,” Hewitt’s Hopeful is spreading to other cities. The artist just installed another of these signs outside the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey. Whether it goes the “love” path — which continues to appear on prints, greeting cards, postage stamps, sculptures, and more — remains to be seen. But in the midst of our contemporary grim reality, the label’s message is irresistible.

Moss shows only one of Hewitt’s references here. It’s called “The Bluebird,” and it was inspired by the Moss Hotel in Maryland. It features a blue-winged bird flying over a squiggly black arrow pointing down, likely to the site of the former hostel.

Southern Maryland had several establishments with similar names—the Bluebird Inn and the Blue Jay Motel among them—which were rare places where black travelers could spend the night. It is not clear whether Hewitt is referring to these matters. But, if so, it would add dimension to what we might take superficially as a purely nostalgic carving exercise.

Certainly, on this superficial level, the images convey a melancholy sense of Americana. But closer inspection reveals that these aren’t just colorful metal parts welded together and lit by red, white and blue LEDs. Hewitt paints surfaces, building a mottled depth we wouldn’t expect. This also prints “bluebird” with the touch of a human hand, which layers emotionally camouflaged items that a machine-made piece cannot do.

Then there is that jumper. “Hope is a thing that has wings,” Hewitt told me in the opening. The title “Bluebird” was almost stubbornly positive, a bird-like embodiment of the sentiment behind his original “Hope” light sculpture. But a quick look around makes it easy to spot Hewitt from the pavilion’s photos. In every painting in the show, this is the leitmotif.

Hewitt, who had studied in New York under Philip Guston, lived the heavy drinking life of the artists’ circuit in the late 1960s and 1970s. Lots of raucous nights were spent at places like Cedar Tavern, the second incarnation of the legendary Greenwich Village Cedar Bar. The pub’s original residents (Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein, Joan Mitchell and Jackson Pollock) moved in, but the establishment continued to be a gathering place for artists and writers such as Larry Pons and critic Clement Greenberg in the 2000sSt a century.

Eventually, alcohol absorbed Hewitt, who was fortunate to escape the vice that had tempted artists for centuries. Historical examples abound. Among them are Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, who went mad with absinthe. Francis Bacon, whose habit swollen and led to polyneuropathy; and Bullock, who died in a car accident (also killed his friend Edith Metzger) after taking over driving under the influence. The point is that Hewitt is grateful for his salvation, and herein lies the subtle redemptive current that runs through Moss’ work.

Except for “Red Rising,” we don’t see a complete bird. We only see wings (or hopefully that “thing with wings”). They’re always trying to push to the surface of Hewitt’s paintings. When they do, they do so through an astonishingly intricate set of layers of pattern and color created using paint, stencils, and materials such as tissue paper and fabric fibres.

Charlie Hewitt, “White Wing”, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 48 inches

There are white wings, and gray wings, and red wings, and black wings, and it seems to me that their locations on the various plates are not just a coincidence. In the White Wing, for example, the title wing rises triumphantly over a black wing in the lower third. This also applies to the “ghost bush”.

In the movie “Yankee Ghost,” the wings are black, white, and gray. The title’s intent is not made clear, and there are no dates associated with the works, so I have no way of knowing when it was drawn. However, if we look at it from the perspective of our current cultural conversation about – and the politicization of polarity around – race, it seems to say something about the fading of white supremacy as a world order.

Charlie Hewitt, “Yankee Ghost,” mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 inches

However, whether my extrapolation from these panels is really correct is ultimately irrelevant. What is clear in all of them is that the wings in most of these paintings are caught up in primal struggles between opposing forces. Some wings soar like a phoenix, others descend toward the ground, and others seem to explode in opposing flickering of activity. These Promethean gradual struggles are embodied in the contrast and juxtaposition of wing colors or, more often, in the way the wings appear as if they are trying to break out from under the many filters of the visual experience.

Stenciled patterns, washes of paint, layers of tissue and fabric fibers act like films that obscure the purity of our visual experience, and thus, our human experience. They are blurry and warm overlays that confuse any final decision.

The search for clarity – or redemption – that takes place under and between these layers speaks to a kind of dynamism of the universe, where facts are ambiguous and ever-changing. Of course, Hewitt’s artistry is impressive. The infinite fascination that arises when our minds try, often in vain, to decipher what is above and what is beneath (not to mention the meaning of it all) creates a tension that permeates these actions.

The feeling of primal struggle writhes in this tension. What will happen? Where will all this lead? Does good triumph over evil? Will we see the light? Can we redeem? As beautiful as it is, the way Hewitt’s visual language asks these questions is what raises the paintings high above the realm of the decorative object.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design, and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. It can be accessed at: [email protected]

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Noah Roy

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