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Conceptual Art and a Generous Concept


MacKenzie Knight’s “The Dance of Life” at Urbandale High School.

“Untitled (Structures),” Leslie Hewitt’s exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC), had opening night visitors referring to Yazmina Reza’s play “Art.” In the latter, the lead character proudly reveals a large, expensive, completely white painting to his closest friend. Their relationship soon dissolves as differing opinions about what constitutes “art” lead to personal resentments of independent thought. In Hewitt’s exhibition, large, completely white pieces of slightly bent sheet metal are meant to resemble movie screens and to “explore the intersection of positive and negative space; illusion and form; history versus the lived experience.”               

Her installation also includes a slide show of shots Hewitt took, in collaboration with Bradford Young, that reflect upon “the nuances of the Civil Rights era and the Great Migration and their relevance to younger generations.” Both parts of the exhibition were partially inspired by the Menil Collection of civil rights photographs, a number of which are poignantly assembled in the DMAC’s separate-but-equal exhibition “The Whole World Was Watching.”               

That latter show is filled with drama and irony. A Bruce Davidson photo shows a black woman being arrested in front of a movie theater marquee announcing “Damn the Defiant.” A white supremacist’s infant, dressed in Klan regalia, looks frightfully mutant in an Elliot Erwitt shot. When asked if any of the seven featured photographers were African-Americans, curator Michelle White pointed to a Danny Lyon photo of black photographer Clifford Vaughs seemingly being ripped apart by Maryland National Guard troops during a 1964 demonstration.              

“No, it was a matter of access,” she answered.                


Such drama and irony might have given context to Hewitt’s vague conceptualism. Instead they are shown in a separate gallery, on a separate floor. Hewitt, who has a master’s degree from Yale, did not grant media interviews in Des Moines. In a gallery talk, she and Young lavished praise on one another while explaining their work pedantically. Hewitt used forms of the word “paradigm” a dozen times. In the only audience question they took, Hewitt was asked if an image of the Florida A&M band, referenced multiple times in her talk, was intended as an ironic statement about civil rights today since the band had been disbanded after black members murdered another black member in hazing rituals. She said she had “no idea” what the question referred to and that the Florida image was intended “as a symbol of the Great Migration.” No more questions were allowed. However, in a 2011 interview with Indie Wire, Young, the highly acclaimed cinematographer of “Pariah,” revealed: “I would say more but Leslie Hewitt always tells me, ‘Don’t give away your DNA.’ ”                                 

Odds are long against that happening before Jan. 6 when this show moves on to Chicago and Los Angeles.                

Two other steel sculptures landed in the metro with back stories that had nothing to suppress. Urbandale High School 3D Art teacher Chris Kimble encouraged his students last year to visit public art pieces in the area and to create dialog pieces in response. Models of those pieces were placed in competition. Kimble asked Quality Manufacturing of Urbandale to judge. The company liked the idea so much they promised they would manufacture and install the winner’s work, a gift worth some $10,000.

Quality Manufacturing President Tom Carder couldn’t choose between MacKenzie Knight’s 13-foot tall “The Dance of Life” and Cole Jeanblanc’s 3,800-pound “Reaching Hand.” So he decided that his company would make both sculptures. They can now be seen outside the UHS Performing Arts auditorium. An encore performance is in place this year with installations for other public spaces in Urbandale. CV

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