Birmingham

Michael Hall

Hill Gallery

Michael Hall’s exhibition entitled “American Honeymoon (Niagara Speculations),” 1991, picks up on concerns introduced in his earlier “Rose and Briar,” 1989–91, sculptures, by employing the great basin of Niagara Falls to frame American historical, cultural, and religious narratives. The “Rose and Briar” sculptures were based on an Appalachian folk song in which two lovers are united in death through the intertwining of the rose and briar bushes that grew on their respective graves. Where the even earlier “Waltz,” 1983–88, sculptures function as literal and metaphoric containers, in the “Rose and Briar” series the containers have been opened up, and their contents—the relics of American consumption—allowed to spill out. In these works, the “high” and the “low,” the avant-garde and the kitsch, commingle.

Visions of Niagara figure prominently in American cultural iconography. Tourists and newlyweds as well as some of the nation’s great artists have been inspired by its presence. It was Frederick Edwin Church’s painting, Niagara, 1857, that established him as the foremost American landscape painter of his time; and Henry Adams used the image of Niagara in Esther: a Novel, 1884, to stand for “the great reservoir of truth” that dissolves the raindrop of autonomous selfhood into the ocean of immortality. Within Hall’s oeuvre, the Niagara gorge has been appropriated conceptually to function as the ultimate container for the abundance of signs that constitute America’s cultural heritage.

In Niagara/Study in Grey and Black After Chambers, 1989—an image fraught with the obligatory Sturm und Drang—a solitary figure stands before the splendor of Niagara, contemplating a flow of cultural detritus. The historical reference in the title is instructive: Thomas Chambers was a 19th-century landscape artist who was known primarily for his method of painting from reproductions of nature. Following Chambers’ example, Hall uses a profusion of mediated images to escape Modernist subjectivism and to reinvent himself as an artist self-consciously working with America’s collective cultural memory. Of the “Waltz” sculptures, Donald Kuspit writes: “It is as though, in the conservative ’80s, Hall felt the need to turn inward, partly in acknowledgment of frustrated liberal dreams of caring for the world, and partly to preserve a sense of self at a time of threat to the communal ideals his early, extroverted work articulated.” With the “Niagara Speculations,” Hall reactivates the public sphere—a necessary if quixotic enterprise as the sun sets on democracy in the age of George Bush.

Vincent A. Carducci