Contributed by Elizabeth Whalley / In a genre-defying practice, Robin Hill queries the nature of her sensory entanglements with the everyday world. Embracing a vast array of materials, playing with scale and dimensions, blurring modes of expression, she transforms her spontaneous encounters with substances and objects into mystifying, unnameable objects. Hill is a New York-based artist and professor in the Studio Art Program, Department of Art and Art History at the University of California-Davis. Three distinct bodies of her work have been on view recently in Sacramento and Stockton, California, and have provided a unique opportunity to explore her recent output.
In essence, Hill wrests ordinary objects from the normal flow of time in acts of re-creation and memorialization. She rescues a slide carousel from its obsolescence by fashioning it into a bronze casting, then into an oversized cyanotype and resin panel, and, finally, into a wall-sized grid of sixteen graphite rubbings. ?The carousel is fossilized outside the realm of technological products, an inert relic of its former active function. In this way, Hill’s intuitive process unwinds meanings, unnames the familiar, complicates time.
Her exhibition at Delta College is a collection of works whose subject is the slide carousel, She explores its form in an array of materials and processes including cyanotype, cast bronze, frottage, and video. Her video Humankind is Glass was produced as a live counterpart to composer Sam Nichols’ 2019 piece There was no shorter way home, commissioned and performed by the Brooklyn-based ensemble mise-en, the title of which was drawn from Ann Carson’s poem “Interview with Hara Tamiki: 1950.” A collection of translucent mica samples, 300 million-year-old cross sections of the planet, are mounted on aluminum slide racks and hung on the wall alongside the video display of the Brooklyn performance. As a kind of shadow play, Hill’s hands purposefully move the slides for no apparent reason, demonstrating erstwhile utility through useless action. The performative objects and video, now in a gallery setting, prompt inquiry about the once-useful-now-obsolete carousel.
In a collection of free-standing assemblages at Jay Jay Contemporary Art, Hill again deploys found objects to unmoor their materiality and temporal dimension. Her Lint-lined Washtub (for Meret Oppenheim & Mierle Laderman Ukeles) references Ukeles’ mode-altering practice of women’s time-bound work. Her other assemblages incorporate reconfigured, once-functional, now-abandoned steel containers. Their titles, Offering and Thinking it Through (with string) suggest actions, usefulness, productivity, and the everyday relationships they once had to the world. Hill unpacks the forgotten properties of worldly objects through processes of wrapping, configuring, and offering. The objects touch us obliquely through their sensory and motor qualities, awakening a kind of wonder that cannot be defined or ignored.
Hill acts as a catalyst, as she has written, for “seemingly inconsequential matter into statements about matter itself.” We see “what happens,” as she puts it, in her India and Critical Matters drawings and “thought objects,” a series of small-scale sculptures. In her India drawings, she arranges soil, cotton, graphite, mica, gouache, cyanotype, and a marionette ball into symmetrical, geometric compositions. Soft and comforting, their pleasing, ordered designs beckon us to touch, use, and count them for some indistinct purpose.
In Critical Matters, first shown in the online gallery anotheryearinla, Hill relaxes symmetry as a square format and an insistent circle hold inconsequential bits of matter in rigorous order. An envelope rests on a bed of cotton balls. Its blue-patterned insides lazily float up in circles. A circle of blue circles nests in a plaster-and-paper frame. A spill of black ink on paper, surrounded by a circle of charred wood fragments, burst through another. A mouse nest organizes itself into a circle. Graphite rubbings form a grid. Orange fabric is left unfolded. Orange peel emerges from a layer of beeswax. A pink corduroy flower embodies layered circles of stitching. We are thus drawn into a complex visual and tactile exchange, the intimate scale inviting us to observe refinements of stitching, patterning, and marking, shifting between two and three dimensions, juxtaposing colors and textures. These pieces are not drawings but function like them.
In Thought Objects, a related series of twelve small sculptures, Hill brings the organizational processes of the drawings more fully into three dimensions. Arrayed on low pedestals arranged in a grid, we move through the small pieces, looking down and across them. She expands her catalogue of materials and adds small found objects whose nature may or may not be evident. String tangles with springs from a chair and sprouts from a stack of strange cotton slices. Fabric spirals through a funnel and spurts out of a baking rack. A sponge poses on a wooden block and a block Styrofoam supports a veil of resin. Enigmatic objects present arrays of fabric discs, hairy wood shavings, coiled fiber, and wax extrusions. With a kind of material logic, Hill connects them with the larger found objects such as the projector and the washtub. Serendipitous encounters with things and intuitive acts of sensing accumulate significance and coherence.
In her Thought Bubbles series, Hill transforms the haptic modes of materiality and object-hood of the drawings and thought objects into a photographic, representational mode. Digitized and dematerialized, we discover her cast of characters hermetically sealed in a sterile, airless environment. Quirky, hard-to-identify players such as a lens, filter paper, a dried grapefruit, a ping pong ball, seed pods, grapevine tendrils, and thread from a feed bag are visible but inaccessible. Trapped in the bubble of the intangible but impenetrable surface of the digital print, the objects’ interactions seem beyond our interpretation.
In startling contrast, the extraordinary 3,000-square-foot installation at Artspace1616, There’s only one sky, envelops us and invites endless engagement and speculation. It is, perhaps, Hill’s boldest example of transformative art-making.
This is the third iteration of her project using collaged clippings of three- to five-word phrases from the New York Times. The tiny phrases, collaged on their four-inch squares of delicate paper, are now 33-inch square digital prints. They entirely cover the wall surfaces of the cavernous gallery space, creating an immersive, architectural interior sculpture. The reader, in response to the scale shift of the newspaper text fragments, feels smaller, perhaps disoriented. Phrases such as “both and rather than either or style,” “the new tongue of concrete,” “Absent words,” or “not seeing or hearing” resonate like scraps of lost poetry rather than fragments of news. And, much as she liberates her found objects and materials from the constraints of their given uses and reorders them in ambiguous but beguiling contexts, here she has given found words a new freedom in a complex, three-dimensional space. We consider the words in themselves, not for the information that they may have conveyed. The phrases have outlived their context and lost their history, reflecting the ongoing dialogue that Hill mediates between the actual world she inhabits and the realms she creates.
Hill’s process enacts the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of the artist as “he one who arrests the spectacle in which most people take part without really seeing it,” articulated in his seminal 1945 essay “Cezanne’s Doubt.” Hill’s work is not fixed and complete but an ongoing incursion into everyday life. As she breaks the wall that separates objects and materials from our consciousness, she imbues them with “the feeling of strangeness” (one of the 450 phrases she extracted from the Times), renewing and re-mystifying our sense of existence.
“Robin Hill: Critical Matters 2.0,” Jay Jay, 5524 B Elvas Avenue, Sacramento, California. Through March 28, 2020.
About the author: Elizabeth Whalley is an artist and writer who divides her time between Quebec, Cape Breton, and New York.