Essay Mike Hewson
On Mike Hewson
Modern painting may perhaps be best understood as an attempt to solve a crisis of representation. As a gross over-simplification: at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, painters were tasked with finding reason to paint with the emergence of photography. By the middle of the century, Clement Greenberg declared the highest aim of painting was an orientation towards flatness. Despite the number of times we have thought painting to be dead or even passé, like a hydra, it comes back in new and various ways, constantly reasserting itself as an inescapable mode of artistic production. From Postmodernism, we have eliminated ideological notions of medium specificity such that it is no longer possible to define paintings as discrete, two-dimensional, or even hand-made. Rather, it is necessary to view paintings as those works of art that respond to the history of painting. Today, we have arrived at another critical impasse for painting in our digitised visual culture, forcing artists to shift their vocabularies and strategies in order to engage us in meaningful ways.
It is using this understanding of painting that I seek to discuss the radical painterly practice of Mike Hewson. Best known for his public installations directly installed onto architecture, Hewson has used digital photographs, renderings, and doodles to dramatically alter the facades of buildings, shifting the viewer’s relationship to the structure. In many ways, these installations fulfil the promise of sculpture. Not only do they appear to be three dimensional, but instinctively, the viewer wants to engage with them phenomenologically; moving around them and understanding one’s own body in relation to the work. On this account, a reading of the work as a sculpture falls apart. Hewson’s work, rather than allowing us to understand our bodies, disavows the body entirely. By shifting away from the privileged vantage point, the work’s perspectival tricks reveal their nature. Rather than sculptural (add), Hewson’s works could also be read as installations. For the sake of this argument, I will claim that the major distinction between a sculpture and an installation is that the viewer can enter the site of an installation - even if only potentially - while a sculpture is a discrete object, or set of objects which cannot be entered by the body. At first encounter, there is a desire to experience Hewson’s work as installation because of its architectural nature. In a recent work, Curtain Hallway (2015), the artist capitalised on this impulse, creating a slotted curtain that visitors were forced to pass through in order to access the main gallery space. Despite the desire to enter the depicted hallway of the printed vinyl, the viewer found themselves either on one side or the other. Just like the rest of Hewson work, this piece constantly pushes the viewer out rather than allowing them inside a created environment. Additionally, there is the potential to understanding of the work as photography. Even in the age of countless, seamless alterations made to photographs, a photograph still holds the illusion of the index, even if we know this is not a promise. Rather than recording, the photograph references truth. In Hewson’s practice, the constructed facade is apparent forbidding the notion of a true image.
Another potential point of contention for understanding Hewson’s practice as one of a painter is its refusal of the gallery space. Besides a few pieces, his work seems most comfortable outside or occupying transitional spaces. In the postmodern legacy, the connection between painting and the gallery has been highlighted and theorised, proving that despite an artist's best intentions and efforts the work is always tied to the space. In the historical precedent of Daniel Buren, it becomes clear that a painting can remain a painting no matter whether it hangs in a gallery, between buildings, or on a bulletin board. Therefore, Hewson’s mounted vinyls do not necessarily shift their meaning based on their placement in the world, rather, they honestly acknowledge the inevitable connection between exhibition site and work.
In our digital culture, the most relevant paintings have proved to be those that speak our digital language. We understand artists who have converted the once heroic gesture of the brushstroke to the new gesture of the obviously photoshopped alteration. In the digital landscape, everything exists on the same plane. Rather than a Greenbergian orientation towards flatness, the most relevant work or our time is literally flat, mimicking the two-dimensionality of the screen.
If we have defined sculpture as a set of interventions, be they two-dimensional or three-dimensional, that create a work of art which occupies a three-dimensional space, we might recognize Hewson’s practice as doing the opposite. Hewson treats the world as an image, transforming sites into two-dimensional facades. In a recent work 125th Broadway (2015) Hewson pulled an image as if by screen-grab to another location, just a few feet over from the original position. When Hewson first saw a nearly hidden poster proclaiming “black lives matter” in a window and a nearby wall dotted with signs facing a parking lot, he thought to himself “that obviously needs to go there.” It is this mentality of viewing the site as image that has allowed Hewson to transform architecture into canvases, subverting our expectations in creating “paintings” that push us out rather than allowing us to peer through windows.
Maddy Henkin is a writer, artist, and gallery girl based in New York City. She received her BA in 2015 from Barnard College, where she studied Art History and Visual Arts.
Mike Hewson is a New Zealand artist living in New York City. He received a B.E.(Hons) in Civil Engineering from University of Canterbury in 2007 and is currently a Columbia University MFA 2016 candidate in the Visual Arts program.