Time during shelter-at-home seems to be on perpetual repeat, as days slip into weeks, and – can it really be? – into months.  Some say photography freezes time, but Leslie Hewitt calls her photographic series Riffs on Real Time, begun in 2002, a durational work, because she combines seemingly unrelated materials from different eras to continually make new meaning. She creates, then photographs, temporary arrangements of books, magazines, snapshots, and other printed materials against a backdrop of colorful shag carpets or well-worn wood floors. Time works in different registers in Hewitt’s series – we peer back in time through printed ephemera (from Ebony, Jet, and other Civil Rights–era publications), but we know that the arrangement itself is fleeting. We bring our own present-day associations to each work, so each reading is, in essence, time-stamped. In these works, world events and personal events are collapsed and Hewitt’s juxtapositions speak to dislocation and repetition, a feeling all too familiar now. 

Hewitt’s neatly arranged still life in the ICA/Boston’s collection features a seemingly ordinary snapshot of a man in shorts barbequing in a park (remember BBQs?) atop a magazine page featuring Walter Cronkite reporting the news (he seems rather quaint in comparison to the amped-up talking heads of today’s 24-hour news cycle). I study the jpeg on my screen, its slight pixilation a far cry from the actual work’s crisp description. I scan my visual memory for what it was like to experience this work in person. I remember the objects in the photograph appear slightly larger than in life, more like sculpture than photography. I look at the map behind Cronkite – what was going on in Lima, Peru? I attempt to read the text in the article, but am drawn to the doodles on the magazine page. Were they drawn by Hewitt? I wish more than ever that I could see this artwork in the flesh, as I am convinced it would unlock these mysteries. I think back to when I first showed this series over a decade ago (that seems like a lifetime ago) and if during our many conversations over the years, Leslie told me about the man in the snapshot. Is it her father, an uncle, a friend, or a stranger? Those shorts are pretty short, so it must be the 1970s or 80s.  But I digress. As I “read” the photograph rather than just look at it, I wonder what kinds of magazines, snapshots, news items, and ephemera will become the mementos of our distinctive time.  I wonder what riffs on tomorrow will look like.


Eva Respini is Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the ICA. This piece appeared on aperture.org.

Friday Art Notes are personal reflections on works of art shown or in the permanent collection of the ICA, written by ICA staff, volunteers, and supporters. Read more