Sydney Morning Herald Column

Hilarie Mais

Published September 30, 2017
Hilarie Mais, 'reflection/reach' (2015) & 'reflection/feather' (2016)

One could hardly imagine a greater contrast between exhibitions than the current offerings at the Museum of Contemporary Art. On level two viewers can sample the shapeless paintings of Jenny Watson, structured only by virtue of the artist’s whims. On the entrance level there is a single large gallery devoted to the work of Hilarie Mais, a sculptor whose entire output revolves around the modernist grid.
It would be wrong to conclude that Watson’s work is deeply personal and emotional while Mais is a bloodless formalist. To spend even a few minutes in Mais’s show is to realise that the most abstract works may convey an unexpected depth of feeling. I’m tempted to go even further: the work of art that demonstrates the most rigour has a much greater chance of speaking to the viewer on a deeper, more fundamental level.
Where Watson fills her paintings with crude figures and hand-written messages, Mais gives us nothing but the work itself, constructed according to a relentless, mathematical logic. There are no props, no rhetorical devices, no cute little teases that elicit the spectator’s sympathy. “What you see,” as the American abstract painter, Frank Stella, once said, “is what you see.”
Mais accepts that a work of art is fundamentally a visual event. No matter what the artist is thinking, no matter what explanations are provided by a catalogue essay or a wall label, the work has to connect with the viewer primarily on a sensory level. The only test is whether it captures and holds our attention. Interpretations can follow in good time.
Many viewers’ responses rarely get beyond: “I like it/I don’t like it”, but at least that’s a value judgement. Liking and looking are very closely related, whereas truly mediocre work never warrants a second glance. I’m probably not alone in preferring artworks and movies that are actively bad rather than tame and formulaic.
The key to Mais’s work is its hand-made quality, which is never evident in a photograph. One has to get up close to these works to appreciate the quality of construction, noticing how a wooden grid is held together with hundreds of small screws. The paintwork is surprisingly lively, with brushstrokes still visible, and contrasting textured and smooth surfaces. Colour is extremely important in establishing a piece’s mood (although “aura” might be a better word), which can be hot or cool, light or heavy, ethereal or sombre.
Reflection: Blue Angel (2007-11) is a tightly-formed lattice of thin wooden slats that leans nonchalantly against the wall. It’s painted blue – not a uniform shade, but a collection of darker or lighter blues, depending on the thickness or thinness of application. The surface is punctuated by tiny squares of white which pick up and accentuate the different tones of blue.

Hilarie Mais, Reflection: Blue Angel, (2007-11)
Hilarie Mais, Reflection: Blue Angel, (2007-11)

Because white registers as an absence we instinctively relate the painted squares to the blank spaces in the grid, through which we see the white wall of the gallery. From a distance it’s reminiscent of the sky at night, but no constellation was ever so uniformly arranged. Mais insists that we pay attention to the physical, ‘constructed’ nature of the work, even as we are drawn into its metaphysical depths. “Constraint is discipline;” she says, “restraint is focus”.
Mais talks freely about “mistakes” which she embraces and incorporates into a work, but it’s been said that mistakes exist only for those who acknowledge them. For an artist who likes to follow self-imposed rules and systems it might be closer to the truth to say she is constantly looking for ways to break up the severity of the grid, to undermine her own formalist tendencies.
If the grid represents stability and discipline, the so-called mistakes are signs of the artist’s own fallible, human dimension. And so a pattern is established: Mais strives towards perfection but is terrified of achieving it. What happens if she gets there? Will she never make another work? Will she feel like a cyborg? By its very nature perfection is unachievable in art, so there’s not much to fear. Mais’s affection for mistakes is purely a matter of that old modernist staple, “inner necessity”.
More than with most artists, this work is a constant battle between objectivity and subjectivity, the sensuous and the ideal, the visible and the invisible. Mais works with precise geometric forms and mathematically determined sequences but her sculptures are full of feeling. To a certain degree they are self-portraits, animated by the artist’s responses to the changes in her life: to the experience of coming to live in Australia in 1981, to becoming a mother, and recently a widow.
As this survey only looks at her output of the past decade, we don’t see any of the work that relates to Mais’s early life in England, or the period she spent in New York before relocating to Sydney with her partner, Bill Wright. Curator, Victoria Lynn, covers this material in the catalogue, which also reproduces a selection of important earlier pieces.
In the most recent works, made after Bill’s death in 2014, Mais has opened up the grid, imbuing her sculptures with a lightness that makes them feel amost insubstantial – at least until one gets up close and sees how much hard labour has gone into their manufacture.
Before there was light there was darkness, in the black, elegaic grid, reflection/reach (2015) in which a palpable sense of grief is alleviated by tiny squares of gold, like fragments of happy memories. Subsequent works such as Broken Ghost or Cluster Ghost (both 2016), bring to mind Milan Kundera’s much-used phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being”. The compexities of life are present but in a pale, attentuated form. The wooden slats are painted red and blue, but in shades from which the intensity is removed.
Hilarie Mais, 'Cluster Ghost' (2016)
Hilarie Mais, ‘Cluster Ghost’ (2016)

One thinks of the grids behind Buddhist mandalas and other aids to contemplation. Mais’s grids are secular in nature, but with both passive and active dimensions. On one hand they are aids to meditation and introspection, on the other they might be seen as networks or circuits in which all the pain and pleasure of one woman’s existence lies encoded.
Hilarie Mais
Museum of Contemporary Art, 23 August – 19 November, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September, 2017