Anyone who has taken a 20th-century Art History class at Oberlin will recognize Giorgio de Chirico’s 1915 painting “La Solitudine,” in which a classical reclining sculpture is pictured sitting in a piazza while a train races along the background horizon, reminding the viewer of time’s endless march forward. With incongruous shadows shooting off in every direction and a nausea-inducing tilted perspective, Corin Hewitt, OC ’93, deemed the work “psychologically trying” in his April 12 Artists on Artists talk, “Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical Interiors.”
Brought back to the Allen Memorial Art Museum by members of the student-run Exhibition Initiative, Hewitt — a true Oberlin grad at heart — began by noting that he was sitting not only with us, but also with the idea of us and of all the audiences that had ever assembled in the sumptuously baroque East Gallery. Two de Chirico works had been selected from the AMAM’s collection and sat, in stark technological contrast, next to Hewitt’s projector display.
Hewitt presented the audience with a slideshow of Juan Gris’s Cubist compositions, in which everyday objects — newspapers, wood surfaces, the wicker of a chair — are pressed onto the surfaces of canvases and painted into the contexts of larger compositions. History and experience are quite literally condensed within these works, creating an interface of time that Hewitt strives for in his own multimedia work. “To me, that’s a very anxious space to be in,” he said.
Hewitt’s anxiety over the past and the fleeting nature of the present are illustrated clearly in de Chirico’s work as well: Modernity and antiquity make for a provocative contrast in “The Archaeologists IV,” from his 1929 portfolio Metamorphosis, in which two sketched faceless figures’ open chests resemble machinery composed of minuscule Corinthian curls and whose bottom halves peter out into classical columns. This image resounded with Hewitt’s explanation that as a young adult, seeing autopsy photos of his deceased father “really informed the way I think about the psychological space of my work.”
De Chirico was known as a narcissist and careerist, Hewitt confided. “It’s not always so pure and beautiful, but I think [the paintings] are pure when they’re happening.” De Chirico famously claimed to have invented metaphysical art, his artistic goal being to re-spiritualize experience.
Indeed, “the most perverse, the most irresolute” state of a given work is the point at which Hewitt stops modifying it, allowing the viewer the maximum potential for projection and personal meaning- making. In his 2013 MOCA Cleveland exhibit The Hedge, Hewitt created multilayered spaces within the walls of the museum that both exposed the “guts” of the building and allowed viewers glimpses of the installations that lay beyond. Most important, though, was the space they provided for the individual’s imagination to roam free within those walls.
Hewitt values silent looking and obsessive gazing, absorbing the artist’s mindset through their writings as well as their art — and so he led the audience through a metaphysical absorption of de Chirico’s world by reading from The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico.
“I don’t believe in objectivity,” the artist said definitively on Friday. “I’m a believer in the beauty of subjectivity.” Though his mediums differ vastly from those de Chirico used at the start of the 20th century, the two artists share an obsession for exploring the axis of time and memory that comes to define each of our experiences.