“In everything that can be called art,” wrote Raymond Chandler in a 1944 essay, “there is a quality of redemption.” This is certainly true in the work of Lewiston native Charlie Hewitt. But his paintings and light sculptures, a selection of which is on view at Elizabeth Moss Galleries on Portland’s Fore Street in “Charlie Hewitt: Bush of Ghosts” (through Feb. 28) more than just manifest 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-long light sculpture that looms over Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue, spelling out the word “Hopeful.” It was installed in 2019, a profoundly divisive period Hewitt characterized as a dark passage for humanity. “We need something that feels a little like a prayer right now,” he told arts writer Bob Keyes.

In more ways than one, it recalls Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” works, which originated as a Christmas card design for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965, but quickly became a ubiquitous emblem of 1960s idealism. Like Indiana, Hewitt is inspired by midcentury car travel along iconic American byways like Route 66, which were once punctuated with uniquely creative neon signage.

Also like Indiana’s “LOVE,” Hewitt’s “Hopeful” is catching on in other cities. The artist just installed another of these signs outside the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey. Whether it goes the way of “LOVE” – which continues to show up on prints, greeting cards, postage stamps, sculpture and more – remains to be seen. But amidst our ongoing contemporary dystopia, the sign’s message is irresistible.

Moss is showing only one of Hewitt’s signs here. Called “Bluebird,” it’s inspired by, according to Moss, a hotel in Maryland. It features a blue-winged bird flying over a zigzagging black arrow that points downward, presumably to the location of the former hostelry.

Southern Maryland had several similarly named establishments – among them the Bluebird Inn and Blue Jay Motel – which were rare places where Black travelers could spend the night. Whether Hewitt is referencing these is not clear. But, if so, it would add dimension to what we might take superficially as a purely nostalgic sculptural exercise.


Certainly, on that surface level the imagery conveys a wistful feeling of Americana. But closer examination reveals that these are not just colored metal parts soldered together and illuminated with red, white and blue bulbs. Hewitt paints the surfaces, building up a mottled depth we wouldn’t expect. This also imprints “Bluebird” with the touch of the human hand, which operates on subliminal emotional strata that a purely machine-manufactured piece would not.

And then there’s that bird. “Hope is a thing with wings,” Hewitt told me at the opening. The title creature of “Bluebird” is almost obstinately positive, an avian incarnation of the sentiment behind his original “Hopeful” light sculpture. But a quick look around makes plain Hewitt’s identification with wing imagery. In every painting in the show, this is the dominant motif.

Hewitt, who studied in New York under Philip Guston, lived the hard-drinking life of his artist circle in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many a boozy night was spent at places like the Cedar Tavern, the second incarnation of the legendary Greenwich Village Cedar Bar. The bar’s original denizens (Willem de Kooning, Franz Klein, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock) had moved on, but the institution continued to be a gathering spot for artists and writers such as Larry Poons and the critic Clement Greenberg well into the first decade of the 21st century.

Alcohol eventually caught up with Hewitt, who was fortunate to escape a vice that has lured artists for centuries. Historic examples are many. Among them are Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, who were maddened by absinthe; Francis Bacon, whose habit puffed and bloated him, eventually also causing neuropathy; and Pollock, who died in a car crash (which also killed his friend Edith Metzger) after taking the wheel under the influence. The point is that Hewitt is grateful for his redemption, and therein lies the redemptive undercurrent that runs through the work at Moss.

Except for “Red Rising,” we never see a complete bird. We only see wings (or hope, that “thing with wings”). They are always trying to push through to the surface of Hewitt’s paintings. When they do, they do so through an astonishingly complex array of layers of pattern and color created with paint, stencils and materials like tissue paper and rag fiber.

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

There are white wings, grey wings, red wings and black wings, and their positions on the various canvases seem to me not to be mere spontaneous coincidence. In “White Wing,” for example, the pinion of the title soars triumphantly above a black wing in the bottom third. This is also true of “Bush of Ghosts.”


In “Yankee Ghost,” wings are black, white and grey. The intention of the title is not articulated, and there are no dates attached to the works, so I have no way of knowing when it was painted. Yet viewed through the prism of our current cultural conversation about  – and politicized polarity around – race, it seems to say something about the fading supremacy of whiteness as a world order.

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

However, whether my extrapolations from these paintings are indeed true is really irrelevant in the end. What is clear about all of them is that wings in most of these canvases are locked in primal struggles between opposing forces. Some wings rise like a phoenix, others plummet toward earth, others seem to explode in conflictual flutters of activity. These Promethean-scaled struggles are embodied in the contrast and juxtaposition of the wing colors or, more often, in the way the wings seem as though they are trying to emerge from under so many filters of visual experience.

The stenciled patterns, paint washes, layers of tissue and rag fiber operate like films that obscure the purity of our visual experience and, by extension, our human experience. They are gauzy, woozy overlays that confound any definitive resolution.

The quest for clarity – or redemption – taking place underneath and between these overlays speaks to a kind of dynamism of the universe, where truths are ambiguous and ever-changing. The technical dexterity Hewitt displays is dazzling, of course. The endless fascination that ensues as our minds attempt, most often futilely, to decipher what’s on top and what’s underneath (let alone what it all means) creates a tension that permeates these works.

The sense of primal struggle writhes in that tension. What will happen? Where will it all lead? Will good triumph over evil? Will we see the light? Can we be redeemed? Though they are beautiful, the way Hewitt’s visual language poses these questions is what lifts the paintings high above the realm of something decorative.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: jorge@jsarango.com 

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