Hilarie Mais

Systems are forever rummaging for a complex whole, which is why artists have continually used them to make their intentions known. Hilarie Mais’ systems calmly lure us to consider the changes that occur over time, physically and emotionally. In her painted constructions, the body, the hand, the grid, colour, scale and materials are a continuing presence that are endlessly composed and reflective like moving shadows under contrasting light. ARTIST PROFILE caught up with her just before what promises to be an inspirational survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art: Australia (MCA).

Let’s begin with your upcoming MCA exhibition. What can we expect to see?
The exhibition has 20 works from 2007 to 2017. Two-thirds of the exhibition is comprised of works on loan from various Australian institutional galleries. The rest are new works, some of which I began in 2014 when the exhibition was proposed. There are duality works, where I am using reflection and folding between the physical and the illusionary presence, as in ‘Rotation No 3 (Effigy)’ (2007). In these works the structure is always on the left, standing in physical space; the response piece, the canvas on the right, hangs on the illusionary space of the wall. Then there are singular systemic works, including ‘RES’ (2010) and ‘Reflection Blue Angel’ (2007-11).

Can you walk me through this beautiful exhibition catalogue?
Four writers focus on aspects of my work over 40 years, and it includes an interview between my late husband Bill Wright and myself, which started in 2011. He had left me more questions which I answered this year. The catalogue also has a beautiful geography that honours my long relationship with the grid.

Victoria Lynn begins with an overview of my practice from early student works until now. This process revealed how those very early concerns continue to engage me now, the divide between illusion and reality, reflection and shadow, an ongoing continuity.

Blair French examines the ‘Tempus’ works. These have happened approximately once a year since 2006. They’re always the same size and proposition, the intersection of circle or spiral against the square or grid, the confluence of the marks but with very different outcomes. They are a continuing series which are almost diaristic, calendar-like, marking time.

Tony Bond discusses the ‘Reflection’ works. These are stretching the concept of self-portrait. The first in dark tones was made after Bill died. It takes the form of two squares stacked above each other – the scale of a doorway or bed, a place of transition, departure and unity. A portrait of him and me is embedded within the work, using an internal system based around the number 17, both Bill’s and my birthdate. A following white partner work was a response to the first ‘Reflection’ work.

Manya Sellers addresses the recent ‘Ghost’ works – involving my concerns with primary colours, but bleaching them out so they’re just their faintest shadow. They’re very fragile, open-frame works referring to loss and disappearance.

Since the 1970s there has been a constant relationship with New York; can you reflect on the city’s importance to your work?
I started travelling to New York with UK travel scholarships from Winchester 1973 and later the Slade, London, and have continued travelling there ever since. In 1976 I was offered a New York exhibition while still a student, and eventually moved and lived there. I matured as an artist there, I was out of art school and just being an artist. I was working at the New York Studio School which had an incredible connection and legacy with modern American art history. It was like touching history, with a connection to first-hand accounts of Pollock, Newman, Rothko etc. It was a very potent time to be there: the feminist movement and its vocabulary, and encountering American art historians Irving Sandler, Dore Ashton and Meyer Schapiro, who talked about what happened in New York in the 20th century. I just loved living there, the intensity and vibrancy of that city life.

When did you come to Sydney?
In 1981, for two years, while Bill curated the 1982 Biennale of Sydney. We had our first baby and we stayed, and a new life happened. We hadn’t intended to stay so long, but Sydney was a great opportunity for us both. It was a very welcoming art community with a lot of strong female practitioners. I’d also met a lot of Australian artists who had come through New York and London, which helped the transition.

Why didn’t you return to your home in Leeds?
I knew it was not the place. I needed to be away from where I grew up – somewhere bigger, to have exposure to other artists, writers and exhibitions, to be part of a greater whole to explore all possibilities.

Yet William Morris and the Gothic architecture in Leeds seem to have been an important structural influence on your work?
Absolutely, but it’s only when you step away from those early influences and look back that you realise their importance. I fear becoming too comfortable as an artist. I need to go away and look at things that are going to challenge or expand you, to have distance from the familiar.

Other influential references include constructivism, minimalism and abstraction. Are they all still important?
They are important abstract vocabularies, and the use of non-representational vocabulary. The grid is the starting point and within this restraint is an incredible freedom, although it’s contradictory as it’s subverted with an underlying emotional evocation. Constructivism introduced me to using industrial materials from my environment, the use of space, corners, the relationship between floors and walls, places of transition and reflection. The repetition of minimalism but I have applied the handmade, to experience the flaws within that process. That something can never be repeated, never be perfected, the flaws demonstrate how things disintegrate or accrue.

Where do you begin with colour?
It started as theoretical, understanding optics and how colour behaves but then forgetting the theory and using colour intuitively and emotionally. I also use colour as a way of indicating what the system is within the work. The colours then become a system of marking, or defining the internal system.

‘Nomad’ seems to be offering a totally new colour system and a scale beyond your body.
‘Nomad’ (2006-16) is a long horizontal work where I’ve used the ultimate system of the spectrum. There is a bodily scale or reference within most of my works, as in Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’. ‘Nomad’ is the longest work I have made but it’s made up of 25 small units that are almost portrait size. ‘Nomad’ refers to its possible different configurations, its mobility. It can be compressed or expanded; in the MCA it will span six metres. In this work I am using colour very differently, as in the collecting of colours, the same colours but from different paint manufacturers. Not mixing them, but layering them together. It’s using colour as a marking system, so it’s an accumulation of collected colour.

What about the histories attached to each of those colours?
What about the cultural responses to colours as well? Colours are universal, but it’s not a universal language. We have culturally different responses to colours. Hence my current use of white, the Asian colour of grief.

Is that why you are diminishing colour in some works?
I am restraining my use of colour to give a sense of loss and disappearance. My work often involves shadows. In the ‘Ghost’ works, colour isn’t on the front of the work, it’s the colours on the back of the work reflecting against the wall.

Are you continuing to paint your works after you have constructed them?
Yes. It’s almost like the practice is split in two. There’s the construction like a painter making a stretcher, but I’m making a structure. Then I neutralise the material, priming it white so it becomes its own form. Then I apply colour, as another response process, so it’s two very different concerns. You can also see since travelling to Japan, I’ve left elements of the material exposed, honouring the material of the structure.

With ‘Tempus 8’ is the drilling pre or post-painting?
The structural decisions, including the puncturing of the front and sides, come first. The sides of the work are important in these frontal works as claiming that it is an object, a sculpture, although it’s reduced and flat.

What part of nature has inspired your new work?
I find systems intriguing, as in the rules of nature and growth and their external manifestation. ‘Feather’ (2017) and ‘RES’ (2010) speak of how the shell has grown; you can see the sequential shifts in its growth pattern. My construction method tells you the story of how the work was made and the painted surface then extemporises on that. The work has its own internal logic like a shell. I do not hide how a work is made; it reveals its history as the shell reveals its growth history.

Can you discuss the shifts with your grid method with recent works?
I have explored many aspects of the grid form but in some of the recent works, I’ve made the grid more organic, especially since ‘RES’. The grid has become looser, there are no parallel lines. It’s almost like a spider web. Another reference I often make to the grid is the fragility of fabric, the warp and weft of how things weave together.

Do you refer to your works as paintings or objects or sculptures?
They’re hybrids, shallow relief sculptures, but they also exist as paintings. Modulated painted surfaces, the trace of the hand, the constructed elements. I call them painted constructions, but I do claim them to be sculpture because they stand and lean in our physical space.

You always give a sharp descriptive title to your works …
Thank you. I often struggle with titles. They find their own working titles, I give them references, then it evolves. ‘Untitled’ would be too anonymous. There’s always the emotional starting point, embedded in the title.

Exhibition
Hilarie Mais
23 August – 19 November
Museum of Contemporary Art: Australia

Courtesy the artist and Kronenberg Wright Artists Projects, Sydney.