Shelf Life: Works in Brass by Christopher Hewat
November 6, 2008-March 31, 2009
The exhibition Shelf Life showed the beautiful books made of brass by artist Christopher Hewat. Hewat, who lives and works in Connecticut, has had one-person shows with the Victoria Munroe Gallery and W.M. Brady & Company in New York City, the Drawing Room in East Hampton, and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. His work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the Princeton University Art Museum, as well as in private and corporate collections.
Artist's Statement, Christopher Hewat
Books are gregarious. They lie on top of one another or flank to flank in bookcases. Pressed together on each tight shelf, they appear a solid undifferentiated object formed of continuous text. When not in circulation books read each other. No book has been written that does not descend from another book. The relation to others is a book's chief value; its chief pleasure the promiscuous satisfaction of pages which have been imprinted and impressed by the matter and stuff of other books.
Books are formed by the accretion of word upon word, a layered thickening of successive pages. They compose the cultural deposit of the past. A stack of books left for centuries would, like sea sediment, consolidate to stone, and anyone who broke a piece from it might find in his hand a small perplexity of fossilized phrases. Read in cross section, these would reveal an entirely unfamiliar literature.
Books are monuments, first to their author's intentions and labor, then to the reader who is affected by them. The mind of a reader is a field of monuments in which books appear as emblematic miniatures, markers along the paths of thought and curiosity. Here stands Herodotus, Ovid, Turgenev, Boswell.
Reading is an engagement with a single object in the stillness of solitary concentration. From the pages of that one object fall other objects: a face, a sluggish river, a duel at the edge of a Russian forest, the death of an adulteress. These formed perceptions, arranged in lines of type, glow in the mind with material presence. To this imaginatively tactile experience the physical characteristics of books contribute their part.
Books in a reader's memory acquire the warmth of brass tablets. Engravings on their polished surfaces reflect figures and fragments of the mineral-rich mind. One fragment, from Osip Mandelstam: Everything seems to me a book. Where is the difference between a book and a thing?
Opening Reception Remarks by Susan Galassi, Senior Curator, The Frick Collection
Many of us here tonight who are long time friends of Chris have had the good fortune to live with some of his small brass objects over many years. Perhaps they are on your mantelpiece or a book shelf, as they are in our house (and in my office at the Frick), and you know how companionable they are, how much you enjoy making new groupings as a new one arrives ñ groups that speak to each other in different ways.
This exhibition takes the idea of objects nuzzling up to one another on a shelf somewhat randomly to a new level, in the sense that a fresh aspect of Chris's mind is at work here ñ not just as creator but as "librarian" of his work. At the invitation of the New York Society Library he focused on the object that has inspired him most over the past decade or so in his brass sculpture ñ the book. But, are his brass books sculpture? We don't relate to books primarily through shape, volume, mass, texture, and material substance ñ the properties of sculpture (though those attributes play a role) ñ but precisely through what is non-object about them: through image, emotion, memory and thought ñ compressed and distilled over time. Through reading, we leave behind the limits of the gravitational sphere. But why should a literary sculptor have to choose? It's in this tension that Chris ñ as reader/sculptor ñ has found his subject ñ and in looking at these objects he invites us into the thoughts, experiences, and emotions that make up his creative world.
Let's take a moment to 'read' his sculpture, which operates on many levels. As objects these works share certain characteristics ñ they are made of brass, they're small, hard, cold, polished, reflective, and they emit light. They are made simply ñ by soldering or hinging parts of metal together ñ sheet metal the artist buys from industrial supply and hardware stores. The letters that form the words are punched in ñ a little like setting type ñ and they too are industrial in origin as well as design. There are many types of book/object here: single volumes and sets, albums, sketchbooks, diaries, a portfolio of images such as the long narrow panoramas. There is a "limited" edition ñ a book with only a single page of Mandelstam's Summer Solstice, and there are books in translation. Their provenance is far flung. These editions hail from Paris, London, and Alexandria. Left to their own devices, books can appear to be flat, boring objects. But Chris has given his books a number of attitudes (as any good sculptor should): closed, open, warped, ruffled, stacked, leaning, belted, and locked, and they come with book marks and library cards. They offer everything that delights readers, writers, collectors, browsers, and borrowers ñ in other words, everyone who uses this Library.
As Chris eloquently puts it in his introduction "books read each other." The objects in these cases extend the conversation from the literary domain to all the arts: sculpture debates with poetry, while painting, music, prose, and math converse in a kind of School of Athens. Each piece in these cases is unique, yet draws its meaning from its place in the ensemble. Grouped, the books form compositions and can be appreciated on a purely visual level leaving their literary content ñ and even gravity ñ behind. One object is mirrored in another and the reflection destroys the solidity of brass - turning it into a painting that opens into imaginary space where we can travel, just as we do in the books they purport to represent - from Antiquity to Picasso.
As for the literary side, I leave that to others hereÖ.and will try now to place these works in an art historical context. You have only to come to the Frick to see our current show of small bronze objects ñ made by the Renaissance sculptor Andrea Riccio to grace the table of the scholar's studio ñ to see the connection. The Hewats we love also adorn our desks as objects of contemplation, jeux d'esprit, and toke ns of friendship ñ partaking of the enlivening conversation Chris carries on with us - and which will now open to all the readers who pass through this hall.