Installation of Duncan Hewitt’s “ten carton parts” at Buoy Gallery in Kittery. Photos by Lauren Zito

“I am not sure what these are,” admits Duncan Hewitt in his artist statement about the sculptures in “nearby invisible,” his solo show at Buoy in Kittery (through Aug. 6). “I know what is observed: in one case, fragments of cardboard fruit/vegetable cartons – the kind with holes for ventilation and grasping, but nearly flattened, discarded on the floor, perhaps stepped on. Each with their own history.”

You might be scratching your head, too, long after taking in the exhibition. That’s because the work on display here lives in a kind of limbo, a creative space where nothing is as it seems. In order to open yourself to these sculptures, you must be comfortable with dwelling in the not-knowing – an uneasy proposition for most humans, who like fixedness and comprehensibility.

Hewitt, who lives in the Portland area, is an incredibly skilled woodcarver. And what might look like those collapsed cardboard crates – along with gloves, a hoodie and casually dropped bits of black fabrics that fold in on themselves – are actually all made of wood he carves and then finishes in a number of highly tactile ways. One can simply admire Hewitt’s dexterity with his material and leave it at that.

However, it’s worth looking more closely and jettisoning our desire for easy explanations. It’s then that an entirely new world of possibilities and references can begin to reveal itself. Those crates, for example, are assembled in an installation called “ten carton parts.” On first encountering them, our brain immediately categorizes and files them as collapsed carboard. Once neatly labelled, we might reflexively think, “So what?”

But when we understand that this is wood carved to look like cardboard, our brain does a slight mind melt. We might understand them, as Hewitt writes, as “something new in the suspension between it is and it isn’t.” Longer contemplation might also elicit memories of childhood forts made with packing boxes. The holes for ventilating and grasping could evoke, as they did for me, the eyes of the hooded figures in the paintings of Philip Guston.

As these associations start to flood and confound our gray matter, we may also begin to notice the sensuality of the fleshy palette with which they are painted. Or we could start to appreciate them simply as mysterious objects in space. To answer Hewitt’s own question, then, we could say these are not one, but many things that only topically suggest collapsed cardboard boxes.

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“Colossus,” by Duncan Hewitt

Nearby is “Colossus,” a stylized corner cabinet on which sits a carved wooden hoodie. The title indicates an object or presence deserving of reverence and awe, yet what is memorialized in a kind of shrine is a quotidian piece of apparel. A hoodie, of course, is no longer just a hoodie. Our interpretation of this simple garment was forever changed in the wake of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a Black youth visiting relatives in Florida in 2012.

“Colossus” produces a complex amalgam of tense contradictions. There is something eerie and ghostly about the hollow hoodie and the way it lists to one side, as though in the process of collapsing (or, more poignantly, life leaving it). Yet that eeriness emerges side-by-side with sadness over a tragedy that has robbed us of the experience of perceiving such a commonplace head covering as something innocent and innocuous. It has an elegiac presence that approaches the pathos of a pietà.

We also sense an edgy incongruity between the apparent pliability of the spongy cotton fabric we know from memory and the rigidity of the carved wood that is its physical reality. And when we consider the form that holds this object, we toggle back and forth between thinking about it decoratively as an Early American piece of furniture and a more emotionally and spiritually loaded object (read: a shrine).

The same can be said of most any sculpture in “nearby invisible.” They can be more lyrical, such as “swan,” which appears as a small stack of slight tomes, pages marked by scraps of paper painted the color of lobster roe. Yet all the pages are blank, whatever poetry, prose or diary entries they once held long vanished. So, what are these scraps of “paper” attempting to mark, actually? There is nothing we can hold forever, they seem to say. The paper scraps seem like futile reification, helpless efforts to capture the essential transience of all things.

“Queen Wave,” by Duncan Hewitt

Hewitt employs various old fire screens in his sculptures too. One, “Folker Spider,” encloses eight pieces of black-painted wood. Spiders, of course, have eight legs, so we can sense the screen as a kind of cage for the arachnid, even in its dismembered state (which might also conjure childhood images of unconsciously cruel kids pulling off the legs of a daddy longlegs). Once we experience this work, it is impossible to look at “King Wave” and “Queen Wave” as simply fire screens that contain the carved bits of “cloth” that sit in them. We can imagine these fabrics, all graceful folds, as capable of scurrying this way and that in their cage-like structures, even though they are stationary.

The tension here, again, is mainly between their hard material and their seeming pliability. But this notion animates them even more. And there is a certain tension, too, in the juxtaposition of a fire screen and objects made of a material that is normally the fuel for the fire these screens are meant to contain.

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Are any of these connotations intentional? Probably not. Like various sculptures of gloves draped over the fire screens, all these works are mainly about process – about carving an idea of something, immersing oneself in the qualities of the material and the sensuality of form, of making it both literal and not literal at all. All of these evoke ambiguously muddled associations of what a thing, existentially speaking, really is.

“the repose,” by Duncan Hewitt

The gloves look like rubber or wool but are neither. The piece “wall mirrors with pictures” looks like what the title indicates, and it stirs our own associations of photos that we have all jammed into the narrow crevice between mirror frame and the objects’ reflective glass surfaces. Yet the mirror is not a mirror and the photos are not photos. So, what, exactly, is this new hybrid of a thing? To repeat Hewitt’s own admission, “I’m not sure what these are.”

Yet through the process of their creation, it is clear that both the initial idea of the object being made and the artist himself have been transformed by the making. If we hang out in the not-knowing of it all – instead of rejecting our befuddlement – these sculptures can be a host of things all at once. That’s a kind of freedom most of us would like for ourselves.

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


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