In a seminal essay titled ‘Grids’ (1978), the American art theorist Rosalind Krauss argued that, as a structure, the grid was emblematic of modernist ambition, encapsulating modernism’s streamlining project through the expunging of forms and conventions extraneous to it. The grid embodied a kind of will to silence, as well as an obvious antipathy to figuration and narrative in its pure rectilinearity and abstract form. Modernist artists like Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, and Ad Reinhardt dedicated their careers to ever-refining interrogations of the grid; an undertaking that led towards a sober realm of pure non-objectivity (Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting ), or conversely to a dazzling buoyancy (Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie ). Later postwar Minimalist and Conceptual artists such as Sol LeWitt would re-inflect these investigations of the grid, imbuing it with a critical edge.
British-born Australian artist Hilarie Mais has also oriented her art practice to the exploration of the grid. Her rectilinear objects – part-painting, part-sculpture – situate themselves firmly in this lineage, drawing deeply from the vein of modernist geometric abstraction. In many ways, her varied objects span the spectrum marked out by the afore-mentioned artists, demonstrating the vanguard grid’s capacity for rigour and restraint as well as its more irrepressibly vibrant tendencies.
A comprehensive survey exhibition curated by Blair French and Manya Sellers, organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and currently showing at TarraWarrra Museum of Art, showcases Mais’s practice. The works range from 2006 to 2017 and succinctly convey the artist’s sensibility, themes, and methods. Collectively, they demonstrate Mais’s cogency of vision and consistency of approach, which recurringly alights on the format of the grid.
Most of Mais’s objects are three-dimensional lattice grids produced through the superimposition of lengths of wood, painted with oil or synthetic polymer paint. Works like The Grid (1987), Effigy (1996–98) and Rotation No. 3 (Effigy) (2007) epitomise the austere end of grid’s topography, with their muted pewter colouring indicative of hard metal surfaces and industrial architecture; in particular, doorways, gates, and thresholds. Other works such as Rain (2000–2001), Shimmer (2000), and Reflection Blue Angel (2007–11) substitute mineral hues for the vivacity of cobalt and aquamarine blues. Flecked with white or carefully contrasting chromatic values, these grids glint like ocean water sparkling in sunlight or gleam like radiant skies.
Through her technique of layering wood and her attunement to the dynamism created through colour contrasts, Mais animates the vernacular of the grid with a sense of material life. Not least because they are made from wood, her pieces often resemble shoji screens, connoting traditional Japanese interior architecture or the serene environments of Japanese temple gardens. Elsewhere, in spite of their rectangularity, the structures suggest the intricacy of organic forms like spiders’ webs and birds’ nests.
Mais’s recent Mist series (Mist I-III [2010–12]) shakes the grid structures out of their squared geometry and refashions them with angled lines that complexify their form. The title of this series clearly invokes vaporous atmospheric effects and the works do conjure a sense of optical haze; not just the translucence of mist but also the dappling impressions of light through foliage. In this regard, her works are indebted to the art-historical precedent of Agnes Martin; the American postwar artist who also built a practice focused entirely on the exploration of grids, but who, through the beguiling fragility of her hand-drawn lines and exquisitely delicate washes of paint, voided the grid of its masculinist biases to reveal it as an understated, almost breathing, structure. Works by Martin such as Night Sea and Flower in the Wind (both 1963) are exemplars of the way in which grids can unexpectedly produce diaphanous optical effects.
The influence of Martin is most obvious in Mais’s white works: Feather (2017) and Broken Ghost (2016). Because of the open weave of their structure, the whiteness of the painted wood corresponds to the whiteness of the gallery walls against which they rest, blurring the delineations of the material form as it merges with its architectural support. Like Martin’s paintings, these works produce different visual effects, depending on the distance at which they are viewed. Close up, the wood grain is visible, along with the irregularities of the hand-painted surfaces (divulging themselves as subtly coloured rather than pure white). At a further distance, the pattern of lines and cross-lines starts to operate like a mesh – a dematerialising structure that appears to vibrate and shimmer.
In her essay on grids, Krauss proposed that the structure could operate in a centrifugal or centripetal manner. The former, as an extensive movement, implied that the grid stretched in all directions towards infinity, hinting that the artwork was a mere fragment cut from an infinite whole. The latter, as a centring movement, conversely introjected the world into the interior of the artwork, making it a representation of everything beyond its frame. Two of Mais’s most subtly commanding works, reflection/reach (2015) and reflection/feather (2016), function in precisely this centripetal way; through obliquely referencing the death of the artist’s long-time partner in 2014. Both were born on the seventeenth of the month, making seventeen, in the artist’s words, their special number. Both reflection/reach and reflection/feather are composed of two conjoined grids which follow a mathematical progression of the number seventeen, turning the works into double portraits. For all its geometric ordering and anti-mimetic abstraction, Mais affirms the grid as a structure nonetheless able to impart something affective and profound.
The Hilarie Mais exhibition continues at the TarraWarra Museum of Art until 29 April 2018. The exhibition catalogue, Hilarie Mais ($49.95 hb, 144 pp, 9781921034930), can be purchased at the Museum of Contemporary Art website.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.