at Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station (through 19 February 2022)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
The intricacies and inherent beauty of the natural world are rarely celebrated these days, and when artists do turn their attention to the surrounding landscape, the resulting images are usually ones of devastation and chaos — charting the movement of fires, the aftermaths of raging tornadoes, biblical floods and the myriad other requisite depictions of an apocalypse surely at hand. We’re all, it seems, arriving at the unfortunate knowing of a planet changing much-too rapidly due none other than to our own arrogance and our earth-devouring tendencies toward near-total consumption. Climate change, in other words, is now a very real and terrifying reality.
Hilary Brace’s current exhibition at Santa Monica’s Craig Krull Gallery speaks both to the ancient techniques of drawing with charcoal while also utilizing more modern materials, including matte polyester. This merging of technique and materiality serves her imagination well, creating a visual topography of our ever-changing and always magnificent world. One could argue that the resulting images are both glorious and terrifying, at once dystopian and celebratory.
Brace appears to be a medium for the elements themselves, as cloud formations explode out from one another while below rend ever-widening ravines that chart out darker courseways across the landscape. The precise and luminous details here are jaw dropping, and the fact the artist achieves this effect using only charcoal is truly remarkable. Standing in front of these works, one has the sensation that you could disappear inside the mottled crevices of a mountain or the sheer and inescapable blackness of the surrounding sea, and that would be a welcome change from the mundane struggles of the modern world.
It is clear from these works that Brace herself escapes regularly into these alternative spaces, and who could blame her? At times the work is reminiscent of the precise line work of Vija Celmins, whose drawings of the ocean are seminal examples of the elegance, power and simplicity of drawing as an ancient practice made modern.
©2019 Hilary Brace All Rights Reserved
Brace’s images also bring to mind Samantha Fields stunning visual evocations of smoke and clouds, albeit the result of raging brushfires. Unlike Fields, Brace’s main focus are the clouds themselves rather than a landscape under siege. For example, in her image Untitled (December, 2020), the clouds become the landscape themselves rather punctuating the earth below, and the darkening rift that exists at the center of the image reads more like a gash in the body of the sky than any literal physical iteration of the earth itself. Truly, these are “unearthly” images, drawn from the artist’s own imagination, yet they read as somehow both intensely personal while also being strangely familiar, as we have all had the experience of gazing up at the heavens in the hopes of being inspired.
Interestingly, Brace’s images of cloud formations appear more corporeal than ephemeral, like giant sentinels of the sky. Art-historically speaking, clouds are rife with meaning. There is a clear evolution in paintings and drawings of skies and cloudscapes over the past 500 years. Until about 1880, historians and artists were concerned with mimesis, the faithful imitation of nature. We had evolved painting away from iconic signs toward a stronger correlation with our visual experience. After 1880, our appreciation of invention in art no longer came from a faithful correlation with visual experience and memory, but rather from our exploration of materials, from the acceptance of the eye as an instrument of the mind, and from revelations of mental activity, especially from our unconscious activity as a new source for painting content and innovation.
This modern attitude of a re-directed quest for invention altered the course of painting skies, as it would everything else. Clouds not only represented a quest for spiritual awakening – or in the case of artists like Rubens, as dramatic and sometimes near histrionic, natural theater – but, more importantly, began to represent a kind of mental equivalence, i.e. reflecting a state of mind, placing the artist at the center of the universe, and specifically as an entity no longer reliant on the existence of a supreme being. These are the kinds of clouds Brace is after, exploring clouds as a symbol of imagination and riotous energy, continuously shifting, billowing and breaking apart, creating new patterns in the sky and new ways of seeing.
In some cases, the clouds resemble the sea, a roiling dark abyss over which they hang as though waiting for the end of the world. Clouds also posit the possibility of rainbows, and with that, a happy ending. Yet Brace does not fall for the obvious allusion here, but sticks with the illusionistic heft and weight of these strangely amorphous aerosols. They offer deceptive shelter, a liar’s foundation, the promise of solidity, yet that is their quintessential appeal – to offer a persuasive illusion so that we might read into it all our hopes and dreams, fears, doubts and admonitions.
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Featured Image: Hilary Brace, Untitled (February, 2021), charcoal on matte polyester.
©2019 Hilary Brace All Rights Reserved
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York. Wood is currently represented by Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles.