Reflection/ reach and Reflection/ feather

Hilarie Mais at MCA 2017

Hilarie Mais has included a number of new works in this exhibition made since the death of her husband Bill Wright in October 2014. Bill and Hilarie had been inseperable since meeting in England in the 1970s when Hilarie was an art student. Their subsequent life in New York 1976 to 1981 was a formative period for Hilarie as a sculptor. They came to Sydney in 1981 when Bill was curator of the Sydney Biennale ‘Visions in disbelief’ 1982.

This brief introduction is relevant because two of these works resulted from Hilarie’s struggle to work through her unimaginable grief over Bill’s death. It is literally as if their intertwined lives have been brutally torn apart and this experience is embedded in the structure of the works as well as in her significant emotional and aesthetic investment in the objects.

Although at first sight Hilarie’s sculptures look abstract even minimal there has always been a human presence in them and it is often autobiographical. Rosalind Krauss pointed out that Minimalist sculpture which was supposed to be affect free and always non-allusive and non-illusionistic was inevitably allusive partly because of the affective engagement of each viewer with the presence of the object. While Krauss’ intention was to critically undercut the rhetoric of the Minimalists, in the case of Mais, as with Eva Hesse before her, the work was always overtly allusive and affective.

Hilarie has written about the investment an artist makes in the object, the material and the process that comes from a very personal space.

“My work frequently contains the element of autobiographical. The autobiographical is often the beginning emotional starting point of the work and through the working and engagement and dialogue, the work becomes autonomous, it becomes itself.”

In this quote Mais describes the creative process vividly. If we know in advance what we are going to make and how to do it we miss out on the mysterious process in which the mind of the artist connects with the “mind of the materials” in a kind of symbiosis. This process involves letting go of the knowing self, allowing the hand and senses of the artist to become one with the matter as equal partners. In this process we discover things we did not know we knew. In Hilarie’s case this may seem to contradict the rigorous structure and the mathematical sequences she uses to work across the forms. I would argue the exact opposite; a strong structure or system allows for the conscious mind to relax into an engagement with the inanimate. Think for example of John Cage using the I-Ching as a means of releasing the conscious mind from its tendency to take charge and allowing sound to find its own expression.

In both these works we see a doubling or reflection. Her sculpture has often made use of the mirrored form and the shadow, in this case these sculptures are not just autobiographical, they are double portraits of Hilarie and Bill woven together. Both sculptures seem to be built of two squares one atop the other, mirroring each other. The intricate working of the grid and the surface of the wood follows a mathematical progression based on the number 17 the date of her and also Bill’s birthday. ‘Reflection/reach’ is predominantly dark not quite black in fact much of the wood is left unprimed and stained. Mais has said this is a return to the respect for materials that has always been fundamental to sculptors. This re-emphasis on truth in material has been a direct response to her visit to Japan in 2015. She spent weeks in the Japanese countryside living for part of the time in a small traditional village and she had plenty of time to appreciate the Japanese aesthetic of materials and their belief in balancing concept and natural form.

The double square also generates the proportion that equates with the locus of the human body. It suggests doorways, portals between worlds inside and out. Then there are beds that are the measure of the human body in repose, in dreams; it is where our relationships are cemented and where we often die. In the past Hilarie has often used the square as a base, sometimes it is paired with another, but that simple geometry has on occasion allowed the diagonals to create a human presence like a Vitruvian figure within the grid of the gate or grille or portcullis. In ‘Reflection/reach’ this is most apparent in the upper section although it can also be traced in the reflected lower half. The work hangs on the wall with the extensions of the grid pointing down towards the floor. The extensions may point down but conversely they also give the whole sculpture an upward lift.

The second work ‘Reflection/feather’ tends towards a bone-dry, white almost ghostly quality. The feather of the title derives from an intimate narrative that acts as a reassurance of Bill’s safe passage. Like ‘Reflection/reach’ the wood is still very much in evidence although it has been worked over and over. The element of time is captured in the material processes involved more obviously than in its dark partner yet I feel that duration is very important in both cases. The mathematical series or rhythms that inform the modifications of the grid’s surfaces are less immediately obvious than in the dark work but they can be felt when you let your eye rest on the image.

The mathematical series are of course a structural premise that as I have suggested may help mediate the gap between mind and matter in the creative process. They are derived from natural forms; series such as the Fibonacci sequence have long been well known to artists, musicians and scientists since the middle ages and more recently we always find it in structures made by Arte-Povera artists like Mario Merz. The Fibonacci series is valuable in understanding genetic codes and the dispositions they underlie. Hilarie is responsive to the structures present in nature and is inspired by the way these patterns reveal the life experiences of the organisms and the rhythms of growth, change and adaptation as in her own life.

‘Reflection/feather’ is an inverted or mirrored version of ‘Reflection/reach’ It stands on the floor and leans against the wall at an angle so that it projects a complex shadow against the wall. The extensions in this case point up to the sky. When Hilarie leans works in this way the shadow becomes an integral part of the work. The grid is structured with layers and overlaps that give the work its visual dynamic as well as a more complex body but also has the effect of varying its depth and hence casting a more subtle shadow image. These shadow images then interact with the solid patterns of the wooden sculpture and are absolutely necessary to appreciating the work.

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