Patrick Hill

The Approach

Perhaps the most unlikely thing about Patrick Hill’s recent work is the fact that someone like Hill made it. Sternly elegant forms and somber opulence seem improbable for a former surfer dude; hence the frequent reference, in the titles of some of his previous paintings and in articles written about the artist, to Hill’s brain tumor (discovered and subsequently removed in 2001)—as though this biographical nugget could account for either the sculptor’s avid formalism or his tendency to sully it with organic and abject substances. Cancer appears to complicate the surfer stereotype in just the way that these materials—from vegetable dyes to syrups to staples to spit—exert their friction on formalism: by eating away at the beatitude of the essentials.

For his recent solo exhibition, Hill presented three sculptures and a selection of paintings. In Oriental, 2008, a pane of glass is sandwiched between four wooden beams that are painted black on all sides but bleached to a bruised pinkish purple on the fourth; the effect is far less exuberant than Hill’s earlier works, which were often tie-dyed a sunnier palette. Piercing through another sheet of glass that bisects the first, a steel rod is draped with swaths of bespattered linen like a miniature mock-up of a Robert Morris felt work. In Ruins, 2008, a slab of marble profaned by violet dye stands between two sheets of tinted one-way glass. As with Larry Bell’s boxes, Ruins imprisons the viewer’s reflection, then suddenly shanghais it into a black hole. Moving around these sculptures is like executing a mating dance around static forms, animated by Hill into a swift succession of alluring poses.

Less successful than his sculpture in both gravitas and wit, Hill’s paintings incorporate pastel washes and detritus into cement impasto. Though they’ve assimilated saliva, wine, and staples, the paintings still resemble Sam Francises that have swapped their airy swatches for virile licks of mortar—assuring that they remain, at least literally, heavyweight. They bellow what the sculptures so elegantly convey: imperious seriousness. Stated through a modernist vocabulary of heavy beams, glass, and marble, this seriousness seems to marshal any contrary element into a reductive logic of oppositions—where sex, in a burlesque of flush folds and penetrating rods, squares off with abstraction, and delicately frayed linen confronts Clement Greenberg’s “pure preoccupation” of form. Hill slips salacious O’Keeffe-like blooms and effete drapery into sincerely well-conceived compositions, like wisecracks into sermons. The suspicion grows that these parodies of sex and femininity—self-aware or not—are merely strategic, shuffled into earnest compositions to excuse them for looking so seriously retrograde. Adulterating the legacy of Anthony Caro and Barry Le Va, Hill produces sleek pleasures made less troublingly grand by annexing a so-called feminine touch. But parallels to the prize art commodities of the 1980s, in the mode of Peter Halley or Ashley Bickerton, still creep in, and Hill’s handsome tactics of repackaging probably aren’t enough to stave them off.

Joanna Fiduccia