Hilarie Mais

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Victoria
23 August – 19 November 2017; 7 June – 29 July 2018

The entry pieces to Hilarie Mais survey exhibition served as a coda for the rest. These were two works of characteristically irregular lattice, one poised on the ground, the other hanging on the wall. Dedicated to her late husband William Wright, they were titled reflection/feather (2016) and reflection/reach (2015), the lowercase suggesting diminutive fragility, the frayed ends of each work denoting incompleteness and discontinuity. Despite being devoted to a painful climax in Mais’s life, they were representative of her entire opus for the way in which they deployed the paradox of chaotic order. These works warned the viewer not to be deceived by the formal refinements of the works, or their ostensible mathematising. For lurking underneath what seemed an uncompromising rationalisation, is a world adrift, subject to innumerable alterations and perturbations. Mais’s artistic project is to tell us that it is only through the most systematic that the unfathomably abstract can be brought into view.

As Ludwig Wittgenstein gnomically announced earlier in his career: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. Among other things, this tells us that language is not a matrix laid over the world of feelings, images and things, rather language is incorporated in them, they cannot be set apart. Applied to Mais’s work, the call to order is not so much a way of disciplining a world, but rather a method by which to understand it; these are aesthetic maps that stand for the ways in which we configure the world. As in the work of Donald Judd, Mais seeks out what is basic and real, but in so doing exposes the irreducibility of reality. The empirical world is full of holes. Mais’s works rely on the language of discontinuity, these are the continuous blind spots in what we delude ourselves to be the smoothness of our perceived life-world. When we look at her work we are effectively looking at looking itself, for which good sense can only be afforded through deletion and selection.

To the left of the entry of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) exhibit was another work of recent vintage, Cluster Ghost (2016), a skew lattice grid interspersed with irregular, more intricate grid passages of varying size. The front plane of what was essentially an encounter between painting and sculpture, was white, but the softest pulse of colour—blue, yellow, red— seeped through the gaps, reverberating from the rear surface and reflecting off the white wall. It was one of the most stirring metaphors for mourning and memory that I have seen in many years, the colour traces acting as the twinges of image and sensation that hover in and out of consciousness, the residues of the once seen and the now never-quite-there. The geometrical matrices are the language of logic, control and capture which then disclose the very opposite: perturbance, evanescence, imbalance. At the penumbra of what we call life, reality and reason is always a haze of the unknown.

One of the chief strategies of Mais is juxtaposition, in which a painting-sculpture panel is placed alongside a painting that is almost its mirror. One of the aims of this aesthetic system is to describe the inconsistencies within correspondences. In other words, once we establish a continuity, a sameness, we then seek out all the exceptions to the rule. It is through sameness that we are able to establish difference. The three dual panels under the series title Mist (2010, 2011, 2012), are works in black, white, and grey in which the grid is ruptured and destabilised in various ways, making for a rhythmic effect. Again, the search for a common pattern leads to finding increasingly more variations. In this series in particular, the first glance is one of settled compliance to system, but further study only leads to a feeling of disarray, but not of discomfort.

It is because of this that Mais’s works have a strong affinity with music, in that they are curiously comprehensible but are detached from reality and are indescribable. They exist as part of the world, but at the same time create another, and suggest the infinite number of outside possibilities. This open-endedness can be seen in the wall units, where the edges splinter out, unframed. In some these are all of the same length, suggesting an invisible frame, in others they move well beyond the square confines to broach a circular form.

Bringing together the square and circle are the subject of the Tempus series, spanning a decade (2007-17). While all charged abstract works, when seen together as a corpus they are clearly more like scientific propositions about something that is beyond our knowledge and measure. In this regard they call to mind the spiritualist and theosophical concerns of the early twentieth century modernists like Malevich or Mondrian, for whom the cross, circle and square stood for components of the universe. To conjoin certain geometric components was to bring together space and time, past and present. In these works the proverbial square peg in a round hole is no longer a impossibility, but a harmony created from opposition. In Tempus 3, these visual conjunctions have a hypnotic, and numinous quality, where the dots against the dark ground struggle for dominance, at once circle or cruciform, cruciform of circle. The shapes move in and out of one another, but are nonetheless integrated into a whole. In later works the holes are not only painted but are perforations, which indicate that the activity is not only occurring on one plane but is part of much larger complex and continuum.

The exhibition was also accompanied by a substantial catalogue with several highly insightful and sensitive essays that situate Mais’s work both personally and historically. Refreshingly, the Mais retrospective did not seek to entertain or to preach. It is about ‘art’ in what today one would have to call the old fashioned sense. The work does not declaim, it whispers. Best of all is that Mais is not an artist who seeks approval, simply because the work is so substantial.

Hilarie Mais, Cluster Ghost, 2016. Synthetic polymer paint on wood. Images courtesy and © the artist. Photographs Jessica Maurer.


Hilarie Mais, reflection/feather, 2016. Oil on wood, 240 x 112 x 4cm. Images courtesy and © the artist. Photographs Jessica Maurer.

Hilarie Mais, Mist IIl, 2012. Oil on wood, oil on canvas, 2 parts: 136 x 136cm, 120 x 120cm. Images courtesy and © the artist. Photographs Jessica Maurer.