Before taking in Corin Hewitt's compelling new exhibition, it helps to understand the notion of parafiction.
The term has seen increased use as a means of describing an emergent genre of art that dabbles in the overlap of fact and fiction. With one foot in the real world and another in the made-up, the viewer is left to interpret what's real and what's not.
Hewitt accomplishes this with an exhibition, "Shadows Are to Shade," concurrently located in two places: his Fan home and studio — the latter occupies the main floor of the early 20th century building and his family lives upstairs — and the Institute for Contemporary Art.
From the moment he and his wife bought the building in 2011 from painters Joan Gaustad and her late husband, Jerry Donato, Hewitt wanted to discover more about its history. Upon learning of its tenure as a bicycle shop, restaurant and auto parts store, not to mention 26 residential tenants since it was built in 1915, Hewitt set out to understand his relationship to the house's history.
He accomplished that by digging two parallel trenches — 10-by-3 feet and 4 feet deep — in his studio floor that make for a kind of binocular effect. His excavations uncovered two distinct layers of red and tan soil, along with pottery shards, marble and slate flooring, pieces of coal, oyster shells, coins, brick pieces and a pre-existing foundation wall.
Researching the site, Hewitt learned that the final landowner before his house had been built was the Ford family, who'd had a small sustenance farm on the site since before the Civil War. Ford's son William had taken over after deserting the war, working as an excavator, an ice dealer, a contractor and a teamster hauling red clay from the James to the Fan to be used to underlay houses then being built. Immediately, Hewitt saw parallels.
"I became interested in his role as an excavator and contractor for buildings," he explains. "In 1880, Ford was a 48-year-old excavator and I'm 48 and that's exactly what I was doing."
That similarity became the basis for a tale of two successive laborers on the same plot of land.
While the dirt and objects he uncovered were pretty mundane, Hewitt began creating his parafiction by replicating objects such as oyster shells, bricks and stones using casting molds as well as 3-D printers. It's left to the viewer to decide which objects in the two identical trenches are real or fake.
As a means of depicting his connection to Ford, Hewitt also created a series of coins with silhouettes of both men's profiles, the dates 1880 and 2019 and, on the back, images of their shared Fan building as it looked when each lived there, and scattered them about the trenches.
Along with the viewer being able to move around the trenches for multiple viewing points, a slow-moving track light over each excavation adds to the effect by casting shadows that simulate sunrise and sunset on the objects below. The studio is open Saturday afternoons.
At the institute itself, viewers feel as if they are the ones in the trench, with two domestic sets, one representing now and the other a previous time, arranged on scaffolding. As if in a dream, the architecture is scrambled and fragmented with objects viewable through myriad different openings as well as straight on.
Casts of his family's knees — some flesh colored, others a sickly post-mortem gray — contain light sources that play off the mirrors on the gallery's sides. Scattered throughout, pairs of hands cast from Hewitt's own, are seen rising out of Instapots, with two lighting sources constantly changing the effect for shadow play.
"The Instapots relate to the pressure of the soil and ground," Hewitt explains. "Food is under tremendous pressure in the pots and they change. It's the same underground with different strata of materials."
In the gallery, Hewitt also displays the process behind the coins he created using clay excavated from his trenches to craft them, as well as dinner plates.
There are a lot of parts to the ICA exhibit, Hewitt readily admits. All the way in the back of the gallery is a live video feed from the sewage line in Hewitt's home.
"There's a sense of waiting for change, whether it's rats or flies," Hewitt says. "There's a feeling of what will happen if I wait to see?" Chances are, they'll hear flushing, see rushing water and a whole lot more.
Hewitt hopes that viewers will let their own associations come and be attentive to letting things happen.
"When people look at this exhibit, I don't necessarily want them to get it," he says. "I want them to have a real experience, so not just interpretive. I'm interested in how people pay attention to our spaces and I want them to feel something."
When a viewer points out that the entire exhibition has the effect of being a mind fuck, Hewitt smiles broadly. "I'm totally fine with that."
Corin Hewitt: "Shadows Are to Shade" through Sept. 1 at the Institute for Contemporary Art, 601 W. Broad St., and at 1 S. Granby St., icavcu.org.