New York

Hilary Harnischfeger

Writing about the fallout from Frank Stella’s seminal “Black Paintings,” Michael Fried charged that he and Carl Andre had been “fighting for [Stella’s] soul.” For Fried, Stella’s paintings were an apotheosis of Greenbergian modernism; for Andre, harbingers of Minimalist object production. In effect, however, the contest (more camp than metaphysics) unwittingly rendered Stella’s nonrepresentational surfaces—which protruded off the wall so as to insistently occupy, even swallow up space—mere heuristic props. If such art-historical prehistory seems, at best, tangential to Hilary Harnischfeger’s concerns, the debate nonetheless resonates because questions of medium (and that old chestnut, medium-specificity) lurk in her work, as exemplified in the six predominantly small-scale wall-mounted abstractions—painted reliefs as much as sculptural paintings, drawings, or collages, made up of such stuff as ink, paper, plaster, pyrite, and chalcedony— and three table-bound artifacts in her most recent exhibition. Her approach confounds categorical divisions between conventions without fetishizing or hypostatizing such boundaries in turn.

Perhaps this openness to form’s myriad materializations results from Harnischfeger’s process, which comes across as a sort of latter-day verb list à la Richard Serra (the equivalents in Harnischfeger’s case might be, for example: to stain, to mark, to layer, to carve, to incise, and to submerge). She soaks paper, dries it, saturates it with drawn and painted marks, and almost tectonically builds a composition from
 there out of patchwork sections of still more paper and sundry minerals,
 stacked and cut in such a way as to
 preserve the rough-hewn quality of
their edges. This is to say that her
 work evidences an “old-fashioned”
(the words are her own) way of mak
ing, one that admits its status as
 handmade at every juncture. Thus 
pieces like 1,2 (all works 2009) and
 Untitled foreground their willful crudity, a welcome, undermining aspect
 given their otherwise gorgeous effect.
1,2, in particular, flaunts its vertiginous crevices, which play against the 
drips and aqueous planes of paper 
that form its topmost layer. A compa
rable organicism—resulting in surfaces that equally recommend one look into, down upon, or across them—extends to other, more obviously topographical offerings, including Electric Pass, Mantle, and El Jebel, all of which are grounded in Harnischfeger’s reimagining of Colorado sites and geological events. (Electric Pass summons a ridge known for generating static electricity; Mantle suggests a tar pit–like sinkhole spied from space; and El Jebel makes over its namesake town’s underwater tunnels as method, plaster forced through dried cavities.)

For all their connection to this landscape, Harnischfeger’s works do not force pat equations; neither do they literalize sites. They do mine them—quite exactly in some instances—but in a manner that remains as loose, referentially speaking, as a connection to Stella (much less Arthur Dove, Japanese Kenzan earthenware, or Giorgio Morandi, influences named in the show’s press materials). Even Lucy, a paper, plaster, ink, glass, and river-quartz sculpture named for a hominid discovered in 1974, jettisons its figurative basis, or at least looks no more or less anthropomorphic than Pan or Untitled, two other nonfigurative sculptures installed alongside it. In fact, the sculptural trio is diminutive enough to read as three exhumed, fossilized specimens of indistinct origin, and meaty enough to exert real presence without relying on a specific narrative. Where earlier works figured Harnischfeger’s take on dreamy floating worlds, these recent ones—wall- and pedestal- oriented alike—are no less oneiric for being so physically dense. Indeed, if anything, they point to Harnischfeger’s abiding interest in accretion that productively undoes as much as it shores up.

Suzanne Hudson