Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Note on J Hill

Robert Boyd

This is the last week you can see a small show by sculptor J. Hill at P.G. Contemporary. I recommend it. For this show, Hill seems to be combining personal memories of the 70s with the art history of the 70s. I don't know when Hill was born, but the first show on his bio is from 1993, which suggests a possible 70s childhood. So he would have probably been familiar with televisions with aerials and record players.

J. Hill, Dual (In three parts), 2012, MDF, 14.5" x 14.15", 15" x 18", 14.5" x 14.5"

And it's not just about being familiar--these things were part of our lives (I was 7 in 1970). Somehow, the texture of the MDF, a kind of wood product in which the wood fibers have been broken down and mixed with glue and resin, gives it a smooth, generic quality. Unlike traditional sculpture materials--marble, bronze, real wood--these sculptures seem to be in no way about the material from which they are made. Instead, they come across as pure shape--dreamlike representations of the objects they depict. They are platonic versions of turntables and TVs.


J. Hill, Tim's Retreat, 2012, MDF, 12" x 18"x 8"

It is this quality of being a somehow pure version of the object depicted that makes the centerpiece of the show, Untitled (For 1973, with Love and respect), so astonishing to me.

J. Hill, Untitled (For 1973, with love and respect), 2012, MDF, 50" x 50"

At first you see a tic-tac-toe board, placed in a corner. But as you examine it, you realize that the horizontal elements are sculptural representations of fluorescent lights fixtures and tubes. Suddenly you realize that Hill has created a sculpture of another sculpture by Dan Flavin. Specifically, his is a wooden recreation of untitled (for you Leo, in long respect and affection), a 1978 sculpture by Flavin dedicated to Leo Castelli.


Dan Flavin, untitled (for you Leo, in long respect and affection), 1978,pink, green, blue and yellow fluorescent light, 48" x 48" x 2"

Dan Flavin is lumped in with the minimalists, and one thing he shared with them is a concern for the space which his sculptures inhabited. By using light--particularly by using fluorescent light--his sculptures inherently "fill" any space they are in. A Flavin sculpture, with these uniform linear light sources, is not just a bunch of tubes and supports--it's the light itself hitting every corner of the room. The room itself becomes critically important. As with Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Flavin's pieces are indeterminate--they don't end where the sculpture ends. They are part of the architecture.

This is what makes Hill's Untitled (For 1973, with love and respect) so amusing and revelatory. It takes away the key thing about a Flavin sculpture--its light emitting quality--and forces you to consider it as an autonomous sculptural object. You rarely see a Flavin sculpture turned off. Hill allows you to see this and even more, he allows you to see the fluorescent tubes as tubes--i.e., as long cylindrical shapes.

Of course, there is a tension between the apparent technology of the Flavin work (representing the 20th century) and the seeming low-tech representation by J. Hill. But MDF is a technological product of the 20th century as much as fluorescent light is. We don't think of it that way because of its origin as wood.

The show, it seems, is a tribute to 1973. What happened in J. Hill's 1973, I don't know. Maybe that's when he was born. But for me, who spent my childhood and most of my teenage years in that dazed and confused decade, this show is quite moving. And Hill's homage to Dan Flavin is humorous and touching.

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