corin hewitt: shadows are to shade

June 15–September 1, 2019

a troubled place. a buried place.


For centuries, people have buried things in floors and walls. One can see it across cultures, from the religious anchorite order who committed themselves to a life of prayer within the walls of religious buildings; to Irish builders burying coin-filled horse skulls within the foundations of new homes; to freemasons who have long interred messages within the walls of buildings. These interventions simultaneously express two contradictory beliefs about the nature of human-made shelter: the stability that allows for concealment, and the inevitability of metamorphosis (whether through decline or design), that creates an ideal site for transmitting messages beyond the originator’s singular place and time. Each impulse calls out to future generations, intuiting the anxiety of ownership.

That call has often been answered through excavation; particularly in the last two centuries, humans have mined the earth to reveal the history of a place or to substantiate its preferred myths. The controversial pioneer of archaeology Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) dedicated his life to the search for proof of Homer’s Troy. Toward this end, he developed a technique of trench excavation that continues to be used today. His tactics have been criticized by many as unduly destructive, displacing objects from their geographic context in search of a narrow fiction. Schliemann’s excavations made a distinction between “valuable” historical artifacts and those without value, a methodology limited by the obscuring force of projecting psychological desire onto places, objects, and people in the course of study.

Corin Hewitt (b.1971, Burlington, Vermont) discovers place by releasing the activities of building and excavating from their traditionally oppositional paradigm. It is the verbs that remain: puncturing, digging, and aerating the subterranean and intramural alike, unearthing artifacts and ecofacts lodged within layers of history, interred by soil, pipe, and stud. Whether left behind by a former inhabitant, manual laborer, or ecological process, these materials fuel a research-driven interrogation of the past that serves as a basis for Hewitt to invert the present. Hewitt’s Shadows Are To Shade (2019) is a new multi-site-specific installation that transforms both the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) and Hewitt’s home and studio in the Fan district of Richmond, Virginia. Histories of Richmond, of visual artists intervening in architectural sites, and of manual labor come together with Hewitt’s personal history as he develops an investigation of place and time, fact, and fiction.

Hewitt’s personal relationship to land began as a child in East Corinth, Vermont, where his paternal family’s occupancy can be traced back eight generations. In 1970, inspired by the North American back-to-the-land movement of the time, Hewitt’s father, the painter Francis Hewitt (1936-1992), moved with his family back to Vermont from New York in pursuit of space, property, and a deeper relationship to agrarian values. The younger Hewitt’s early years working on the family land sparked his interest in the ways in which history, land, and labor create ideas of inhabitancy, always positioned between the horizons of life and death.

From the late-1990s to the mid-2000s, Hewitt maintained his artistic practice by working as a plumber and electrician in and around New York City. In 2001, while on an electrical job in a Manhattan brownstone, Hewitt set his sights on a 30-foot air shaft that rose up through the center of the building. The artist managed to convince his employer, the banker and art director Thomas Delavan, to let him use the site for a large-scale sculptural work. The sculpture was modeled after Willard Scott (b. 1934), a media personality who originated the character of Ronald McDonald before becoming “America’s favorite weatherman” on NBC’s The Today Show. Hewitt’s Here’s What’s Happening In Your Part of the World (As We Speak), 2001, weighs nearly 600 pounds and stands upright at 8 feet and 2 inches. Cast in marble dust, the figure inhabits an installation containing elements cast in soil from beneath Hewitt’s Vermont family home, positioning the weatherman as a mascot for the contingencies of life, death, and property. Willard Scott would be his first major work to explore the tensions within the vocabulary of the public monument, in which the necessary familiarity of the representational figure conceals the highly specific spatial negotiations with people and buildings inherent in a public work.

Corin Hewitt, Here’s What’s Happening in Your Part of the World (As We Speak), 2001. Cast Marble, cast earth, paraffin, mohair, bronze, 35’ x 9’ x 6’

The history of meteorology includes a role for President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), who signed a bill creating the National Weather Service in 1870, just five years after defeating the Confederate Army near Richmond. Despite the Union’s victory over the Confederacy, monuments commemorating the losing side were erected 25, 42, 54 and 64 years following the end of the Civil War. These larger-than-life Confederate icons¹ were championed by the Lost Cause, a constructed southern narrative and political revanchism that would pervade imaginations like a weed for decades to come. However volatile the political fictions housed within, these commemorative monuments still stand half a mile from Hewitt’s home and studio in Richmond.

In the fall of 2017, Hewitt dug two parallel trenches in his studio floor. The trenches, resembling elongated twin burial plots, measure 12 feet long by two and a half feet wide and four feet deep. They became the central site for a roughly one-year excavation project that would reveal traces of history buried within layers of clay and sediment, setting into motion the large-scale project Shadows Are To Shade.

Corin Hewitt, Hewitt Home/Studio Building, 2019

Hewitt’s dig was intended to turn up material clues as to the history of the land he and his family have occupied since moving to his home in Richmond in 2011. His research led him to previous tenant William T. Ford (1833-1898), who was instrumental in the development of the area from agricultural land to the urban neighborhood we see today. Ford had multiple occupations throughout his life: soldier, ice dealer, farmer, excavator, teamster, and contractor. In 1880, significant development began on the Fan district, so-called for the way it fans out from its origin point near the ICA, extending from Belvidere Street at Monroe Park to its westward edge at the Boulevard. The majority of this development was conducted by blue-collar unions like the Teamsters, of which Ford was a member. Ford was responsible for driving horse-drawn wagons filled with clay mined from the James River. That clay would form the foundations of new homes and businesses across the Fan. Although Ford and many other manual laborers lacked financial security themselves, they were materially responsible for ensuring the wealth and prosperity of Richmond’s burgeoning post-war white middle class. The Teamsters’ struggles for equality and fair wages for all laborers won them the reputation as “guardians of social justice” who “saw no color line.”² Still, the capital that paid for their labor contributed to the forceful assertion of white dominance in Richmond, weaving Jim Crow into the architectural fabric of the city.

In 1880, Ford was a 48-year-old Richmond city excavator, the same age as Hewitt at the time of this exhibition in 2019. For Hewitt, that parallel creates the foundation for a story of two laborers occupying the same land with 139 years between them, weaving together a complex narrative that merges the history of the land’s previous tenants with that of his own family. What Hewitt discovered lodged in the sediment and clay beneath the foundation of his home were mundane objects: rocks, pottery fragments, household wares, coins, and oyster shells: objects of indeterminate meaning and value. Rather than attempting to apply context to those findings, Hewitt emphasizes that indeterminacy by creating replicas, forms which depend on context for their meaning and value. Vast numbers of cast replicas, both painted and unfinished, emerge like fieldstones in both sites of the exhibition, offering a sustained material reverberation in which found forms are subject to doubling and coupling with new forms. Here, originals and replicas exist side-by-side, frustrating the viewer’s attempt to distinguish the real from the fake.

Corin Hewitt, Shadows Are To Shade Studio Process Image, 2019

The instability of value is further manifested through Hewitt’s introduction of a fictional currency to his narrative. To materialize his connection to Ford, Hewitt produced a series of coins with crude silhouettes of caricatures of both men on one side, the years 1880 and 2019 listed below. On the reverse are representations of their shared Main Street home at the time of their inhabitation. Dispersed between both sites, in the trenches, these coins appear to have been excavated from the depths, while in the gallery, Hewitt reveals the reverse, displaying evidence of the process through which he used the excavated clay to replicate the new silver coins. Hewitt thus mints a fantastical connection across time on the basis of property ownership. If Ford’s contributions to the Fan can be understood as housing and stabilizing the imagination of white supremacy (even unintentionally), Hewitt’s labor in Shadows Are To Shade is a deliberate architectural destabilization that contends with his relationship to ownership, value, and inherited privilege.

Corin Hewitt, Shadows Are To Shade Studio Process Image, 2019

In the 1970s, American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978) contributed to an ongoing discussion about the role of architecture and the potential for artistic subversion of its forms and functions. Matta-Clark coined the term ‘anarchitecture,’ a compound of anarchy and architecture, to refer to his building cuts. Matta-Clark’s most iconic building cut project, Splitting (1973-74), was performed on a home slated for demolition in a blue-collar neighborhood in Englewood, New Jersey; as with Hewitt’s Willard Scott, Matta-Clark had the benefit of a sympathetic property owner. Matta-Clark first cut a vertical section down the center of the house, splitting it into two parts. He then jacked up one side, resulting in a V-shape through which natural light fell into the center of the structure. Describing the project, the architect Mark Wigley writes “what destabilized the house is not the physical undoing of the structure, as the building remained perfectly stable and appears so, but the exposure of what a house is by making it seem so other through such a minimal gesture. The radicality of the gesture comes from the split’s being so carefully weighted that the idea of house oscillates indeterminately between the sense of coming apart and coming together.”³

By piercing his home’s architectural envelope, digging through the floor and into the earth, Hewitt reveals the mechanisms that allow a building to appear as a body. Walls and floorboards become skin; joists and studs: bones; soil: muscle; pipes: veins and guts, and vents: nostrils. Framing the house as a body allows us to transform our relationship to the domestic from one that supports only our own wellbeing to one that posits two beings: the inhabitant and the home, existing in parallel to each other. This doubling creates both the possibility of alternate points of view and the necessity of them; Shadows Are To Shade literally cannot be seen in its entirety without accessing multiple perspectives. Viewers who visit his home will peer down into the trenches as slow-moving light fixtures cast dark shadows of each sculptural element within, balancing the corporeality of soil with the temporality of perception. At the ICA, two domestic sets appear to emerge from and fall into elaborate scaffolding, and viewers occupy the area of the trench, a position from which objects and environments can be seen through slits in mud-colored scrims. The dreamlike architectural sets, strange amalgamations of earth-stained walls, nondescript furniture, blue carpet, and linoleum, suggest discreet yet mysterious functions.

Corin Hewitt, Shadows Are To Shade Studio Process Image, 2019

Within the installation’s “living” area stand two groups of Caucasian knees: one fleshed-colored while the other postmortem-colored situated on and penetrating through cobalt blue carpeting. These replicas, cast from Hewitt, his wife, and daughters’ bodies, become ghostly sources of light, rising and falling throughout the mirrored platforms on either side of the galleries. Active hands exist side by side with decrepit knees, and the specificity of these cast appendages, which range in age from 5 to 48, make evident each body’s relationship to labor, life, and death. Meanwhile, in the installation’s “bathroom” area, Hewitt’s piles of cast crackers and oyster shells considers the process of ingestion as a delivery system, not only for excretion but also for meaning. The juxtaposition is telling: crackers are eaten and turn to shit, while oyster shells, ingested within the bowels of the earth, transform to limestone and then to marble. On closer inspection, Hewitt’s marble floor here is found to be linoleum, once again destabilizing the stories we invent to create value. In contrast to those fictions, videos projected in the back of each gallery present live feeds from the sewage line in the Hewitt home, within which flow humanity’s most constant companions: rats and shit. By bringing the plumbing into the gallery space, Hewitt turns the interior architecture inside out, along with the hierarchy implicit within the museum’s function as preserver of cultural value, suggesting that these too are objects worthy of aesthetic and philosophical contemplation.

Corin Hewitt, Shadows Are To Shade Studio Process Image, 2019

Hewitt’s environments offer audiences alternate points of view on the familiar and domestic frequently the sites of ritual, boredom, nostalgia, anxiety, and banality. Hewitt’s incision into his home can be read as a remedy for anxieties suspended within the domestic, both the anxiety that surrounds production in the studio as well as the anxiety of occupying property that is linked to charged histories of development within the city of Richmond. In this way, dual anxieties of lived time and historical time intersect and compound in interior and exterior spaces. Samuel Beckett wrote that the interior is often described by customary rituals where habit and forgetfulness become two extremes of not knowing.⁴ For Hewitt, piercing through the visible limits of the interior becomes a tactic toward knowing and unknowing at once, one that excavates and extrudes to learn about the past and generate new fictive, hybrid visions of the present.

Hewitt’s architectural interventions in his home are in line with a history of American artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s that transformed their home and studios into artworks in their own right. The interventions by sculptor David Ireland at his 500 Capp Street home in San Francisco, California, present perhaps the most parallels to Shadows Are To Shade. Ireland’s twelve-year project began in 1975 as a way of extending his practice of working with building materials such as cement and linoleum tiles. Ireland committed himself to a series of “maintenance actions,”⁵ a term he used to describe the Zen-like care that combined home improvement and art making. Ireland carefully peeled back layers of the home, revealing the accretion of material history left by previous tenants and laborers. For Ireland these actions were anthropological, revealing the home’s social signs much like an archaeologist might reveal layers of antiquity within strata of dirt. In 94 Pounds, puddles of cement were allowed to dry on carpet. In Dumbballs, Ireland’s mediation on process, the artist repeatedly tossed wet cement from one hand to the other for up to 20 hours a day until the material turned into a perfect sphere.⁶

In Shadows Are To Shade, the clay dug up from Hewitt’s property acts as a material messenger, travelling freely from artifact to replica, from foundation to furnishings, and back again. Ireland transformed found materials in his Capp Street home so that objects such as brooms and rubber bands became the basis for new sculptural forms. In Shadows Are To Shade, household items such as instant pots, plates, makeup, and coins so too become elements of sculpture, yet Hewitt’s relationship to found material is distinct from Ireland’s in its reliance on craftsmanship as sleight of hand. At the center of all these material slippages are cast replicas of Hewitt’s hands, which rise and fall from instant pots and become the basis for a series of shadow plays that extend the artist’s investment in material manipulation. While Ireland’s actions evince a sense of reverence and a desire to preserve, Hewitt’s actions are more aligned with a desire to confound and produce new realities through a series of material stutters.

Corin Hewitt, Instant Pot, 2018, Silicone, wet/dry vac filter, dust, ash, and epoxy, 14 x 15 x 15”

Hewitt’s sculptures therefore create a series of parafictions, merging and splitting objects that reference functional use as well as distinct historical moments. Parafictions as understood by art historian Carrie Lambert Beatty⁷ are employed to produce and manage plausibility by complicating its relationship to truth and accuracy. To this end, parafictions are produced in an encounter with the viewer, whose various configurations of knowledge and horizons of expectation determine whether something is plausible or not.⁸ To a viewer, the veracity of the objects and environments presented in Shadows Are To Shade are predicated on Hewitt’s use of excavation as a methodology. The expectation is that truth will be sought through narrative history. When real and fabricated rocks, crackers and oyster shells, are displayed with 21st century artifacts such as instant pots and sunscreen, the viewer’s ability to ascribe historical plausibility to any given object slips away.

By challenging the functions of the home, studio, and gallery, Hewitt builds a narrative that both is and isn’t about the history of a place. A parafiction arises out of the actual and the possible, where one time is haunted by another. For Hewitt, New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is a model for anachronism and continual architectural transformation. Since its construction in 1892, the 13th century French gothic-style cathedral has remained, by design, in a constant state of construction, existing in the past while continuously responding to the possibilities of the future. It is in this vein that Hewitt’s Shadows Are To Shade was born and will exist in the world as he continues to make architectural interventions to his home in perpetuity.

  1. Although the majority of the monuments on Monument are to the Confederacy (Robert E. Lee, J.E.B Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury) one monument was erected in 1996 commemorating African-American tennis star and Richmond native Arthur Ashe.
  2. “The Early Years.” Teamsters. Accessed May 1, 2019. https://teamster.org/about/teamster-history/early-years.
  3. Wigley, Mark, and Gordon Matta-Clark. Cutting Matta-Clark: The Anarchitecture Investigation. Zurich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2018.
  4. Teyssot, Georges, and Catherine Seavitt. “Boredom and Bedroom: The Suppression of the Habitual.” Assemblage, no. 30 (August 1996): 44-61.
  5. Lewallen, Constance M. 500 Capp Street: David Ireland’s House. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2015.
  6. Klausner, Betty, and David Ireland. Touching Time and Space: A Portrait of David Ireland. Milano: Charta, 2003.
  7. Lambert-Beatty, Carrie. “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility.” October 129 (2009): 51-84.
  8. Ibid, 73.

interview: corin hewitt and stephanie smith

Stephanie Smith: Wordplay is always an important part of your work. How does the title function for you in this project?

CORIN HEWITT: I think of the title “Shadows Are To to Shade” as an important component of the work. The various definitions of “shadow” can open up the way we think about relationships between lightness, darkness, and time. “Shadow” as a verb can mean “to follow,” “to accompany,” “to watch,” or alternately “to cloud or obfuscate.” I am also interested in examining our intellectual and emotional relationships to shadow versus shade. What is the difference between “resting in the shadows” versus “resting in the shade”? Additionally, there are more ominous or negative associations for each of the terms: “Lurking in the shadows,” “the shadow self,” and “throwing shade.” In the work, shadows are used in various ways: as an idea that permeates the show and, more literally, through the shadow plays within the trenches and the ICA installation.

Language play was also generative in many other parts of the work. I was considering connections between knees and chimneys in relation to their phonetics, shape, and function. I love the way one’s imaginative senses (both analytical and bodily) can draw us in and free us. There is always the possibility for movement between sense and sense-making as well as associative rhyme and non-sense. In playing between these modes of thinking, there is potential for re-ordering inherited meaning and structure. These ways of thinking through the past and future feel very freeing for me.

SS: What compels you about the studio as site? (As archetype, and also this particular studio located in your home, a building that has a layered, complex history of use and ownership.)

CH: Having spent the majority of my life in one or the other, I’ve been interested in the relationship between the studio and the home for a long time. Both are spaces of production and seclusion where people alternately strive for change and affirm continuity.

In 2011, when Molly [McFadden] and I first came across the building that we now own in the Fan, we felt there was something special about it. It had been owned by painter Joan Gaustad and her late husband Jerry Donato since 1977. Both because it was owned by artists and because of something harder to define, the building contains a unique spirit of openness and porosity. I was immediately curious about its history. The downstairs, which houses our studios, had previous commercial tenants including a radio store, a bicycle shop, an auto parts store, and a restaurant. Twenty-six residential tenants have lived in the building since it was constructed in 1915. I also learned that the building existed on a historic segregation line. Coming from the north during this time of reckoning, it felt important to try and understand myself in relation to these pasts. As I imagined building a future here, it was clear to me that I needed both empathy and criticality to do so.

SS: How did you decide not only to research the building, but also to make physical alterations to it—most dramatically the two trenches that you excavated in your ground floor studio?

CH: I dug a lot of holes growing up. We had large gardens as well as outhouses on our land in Vermont, which we had to dig new holes for every few years. The impulse to dig holes in my studio came from the desire to engage the foundation of the place where I lived. I wanted to know what material evidence of the past lay underneath us. Undertaking this process directly under my studio seemed fitting as so much of my previous work had asked similar questions in different ways.

We started by digging two parallel trenches measuring about 10 x 3 feet long. As we dug, we found two distinct layers of red and tan soil, shards of pottery, oyster shells, chunks of coal, pieces of marble and slate flooring, coins, glacial stones, chunks of brick, and a pre-existing brick foundation wall. At about four feet deep, just below the sewer pipes, we stopped. This was the strata where the history of the site exists in the state I am most interested in.

SS: What did you find once you started digging, and as you continued researching the site?

CH: The last recorded landowner before our house was built was the Ford family. William T. Ford’s father purchased the land about ten years before his son went off to fight in the Civil War. Upon deserting in 1864, Ford returned to take over the small sustenance farm and to be with his young family. Between 1864 and his death in 1899, he worked as an ice dealer, teamster (bringing clay and other materials to construction sites), excavator, and contractor.

The first layer of soil underneath the asphalt pad contained a thick layer of red clay that was brought up from the James River to underlay buildings. I immediately started using that clay to make objects. After going through the next level of tan fill, I found a section of a brick wall, which was part of a horse stable. I became very interested in Ford’s parallel role to mine as an excavator and contractor for buildings similar to ours that were being built all over the Fan neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This work was an extension of the development of the Fan, which had deep ties to a reconsolidation of white upper middle class power in Richmond. The Lost Cause monuments, located just up the street, were used as both icons and incentives for this development. Real estate companies, such as the Lee Development Company, used them as advertising and funding mechanisms to pay workers such as Ford. I became interested in dwelling in both Ford’s and my complicities in this history.

SS: The project functions along two primary axes: vertically, with both the trenches and your research digging into earth, infrastructure, time, history, and memory—and horizontally, as you weave connections and fictions among those elements and across the two sites (your home, and the ICA). Doubling, mirroring, and shadowplay become key strategies in the latter. Could you talk about how they function across the two sites and within the two halves of the central ICA installation?

CH: At the ICA, two architectural installations will alternately mirror and parallel each other. The same is true of the two trenches in the floor in our home. I dug the trenches next to each other so they could assert a kind of binocular vision. Similar to the way the combined view from each eye allows us to understand depth in our field of vision, I was hoping the trenches would form a relation to depth, both visually and metaphorically. I also wanted them to create a tension between repetition and difference. I thought the multiples of identical objects and their shadows in the trenches would open a possibility for meaning to change through repetition.

I have also been thinking about that aphorism, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.” There are these things called half-rhymes or lazy rhymes, which are imperfect or near-rhymes. There also slant rhymes, which are formed by words with similar but not identical sounds. All of these rhyme forms are interesting to me in relation to mirrors and copies.

SS: Is there an ideal order in which to experience Shadows Are To Shade—home/studio first? ICA first? If so, why?

CH: Either works...it is conceived to allow different viewers different orders of approach.

SS: This project is the first manifestation of what you envision as a long-term series. How do you hope it will unfold over time?

CH: I am thinking about how to absorb our building into a kind of long term artwork. My thought is that each of these future projects will take on an aspect of the architecture of the building to both embed and extend questions arising from the rich history of the site in relation to ideas I encounter in the future. Potentially a work for each of the 26 previous tenants

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