This essay was written in conjunction with Julia Hechtman: Suddenly Everything Has Changed, on view at CUE Art Foundation December 18, 2014 - January 31, 2015.
In her subtle, meandering book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, essayist Annie Dillard explores the forested surroundings of her home in rural Virginia, recording in exquisite detail the biological routines, transcendence, cruelty and beauty at work in the natural world. Dillard’s personal account winds in and out of observation of the outside world and contemplation of her own interior life and faith. Early in the book, on watching a mockingbird drop abruptly from the roof of a building, only to unfurl its wings and land softly the moment before impact, the author remarks: “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
Artist Julia Hechtman is similarly a witness to the mechanisms at work within our environment but beyond our control and, all too often, at the threshold of our awareness—little wonder that the text is one the artist frequently revisits. In Suddenly Everything Has Changed, Hechtman presents a selection of intimate sculptures, large-format photographs, and a trio of videos, works culled from various recent series produced in tandem. However varied her output, the whole of her practice exists within a specific field of activities—walking, collecting, germinating, reframing—that build to form discrete artworks, evidence of her experiences. It is a slow reveal that Hechtman courts, one meant not to directly confront the viewer but to guide subtly towards her main subjects: longing, grief, memory, and an encounter with the Sublime, triggered by and viewed through the lens of a private experience with the natural world.
Any mention of the all-too-loaded concept of the Sublime points inevitably to the Romantic tradition. Yet despite a shared belief in the creative potency that resides in a communion with nature, Hechtman’s approach avoids grandiosity. Her quiet gestures of framing and reconstituting produce a shimmering aura around small, overlooked traces of the natural world, a strategy perhaps most evident in the sculptural components of the exhibition.
Having studied photography and video at Syracuse University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, Hechtman has only recently introduced sculpture into her predominantly lens-based practice, one initially centered on photographic series and performative video. Despite being a relative newcomer to sculpture, she marries a naturalist’s traditions of display with an alchemist’s relationship to materials. Collected remains of small animals and found bits of wood—much of which is gathered on walks in the Arnold Arboretum near her home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts—are altered subtly and displayed on low grey pedestals in careful, almost reverential assemblages. Scale and placement beckon the viewer closer, revealing quiet interventions made by the artist. In Cold Feelings (2014), a small taxidermied rattlesnake coiled atop a cedar branch seems to stare out icily from tiny black pearls set in its eye sockets. Now and Then (2014) is a sort of crude chalice composed of a copper-leafed shell held aloft by mammalian pelvic bones cast in bronze. The introduction of precious metals and stones buoy these small artifacts up from their commonplace conditions, revealing their hidden transcendent qualities, like gold filigree around fragments of a saint’s bones held in a reliquary.
The quiet reverence with which Hechtman applies herself to the preservation of a single moment is fully realized in Down in the Hole (2014). This tiny sculpture consists of a mummified dead frog, flesh taut and rubbery against the twig-thin skeleton, partially submerged in a bisected sphere of clear rubber, as if leaping into a pond, frozen in midair. Lurking under much of the work is a desire to hold an instant, to stop the flow of time in order to better bear witness to life as it passes in all its strange beauty and ugliness. Hechtman’s project seems largely to be the construction of a language for this desire, and for the impossibility of its fulfillment.
This sentiment is echoed in the large-scale, black-and-white photographic images on view, representative of the artist’s long-standing interest in the medium. Despite their formal affinities and serialized display, the images were collected over many years during the artist’s extended stays in locations as diverse as Ireland, Australia, Arizona and Iceland. While they could be reductively classified as landscape photographs, each denies the viewer a horizon line, avoiding the historically objective framing device. Despite their size, their precision and austerity, Hechtman’s photographs carry the same sense of fragility and intimacy as her small sculptures. Bare trees, pocked stones, grey skies blanketed in mist—her imagery is again somber, perhaps even slightly disturbing, yet restful, inviting the viewer into a space for contemplation. Produced on daily walks in starkly beautiful and diverse regions of the world, the assembled photographs confuse the distinction between the everyday and the remarkable, revealing that each resides in the other. Geographic specificity is erased in the process, replaced with hazy visions of a landscape outside of place, found on no map.
In her photographs as well as her videos, Hechtman allows a small part to stand in for the whole. The bits of experience that she records and presents in fragments point to their origins while creating a dissociative effect, as a broken mirror shows a reflection. Her images are both a document of an instant and an abstract projection of feeling. This dichotomy is most clear in Invisible Sun (2013), a video made while the artist was traveling in Iceland some years earlier. On a black sand beach, a gleaming pyramid of ice captures the cold, hard sunlight ubiquitous in Icelandic summers, holding and refracting it as if the ice itself were the light source. Waves lap the shore at a somewhat disquieting three-quarter speed, while the pyramid slowly melts, losing its form. It is both a stand-in for the massive icebergs that float offshore and out of view, and a prism through which the whole of the artist’s experience in the otherworldly place can be transferred to the viewer. The chunk of ice was, when Hechtman discovered it, a nearly perfect triangle. After hastily returning with video equipment, she found that the ice had already begun to melt, so she captured it in all its slowly dissolving brilliance. Again we see a preoccupation with the fleeting, a desire to hold what cannot be held.
Yet despite the ephemeral nature of her subjects, Hechtman displays the dedication and patience of an archivist toward her gathered source material—photographs, footage, the remains of the small dead—often returning to her artifacts after long periods of incubation. In the video Orphan (2013), the image of a fruit bat roosting in the trees develops a private meaning, divorced from its common signifiers. Shot while Hechtman was traveling in Australia, the footage of the strange, vulnerable creature came over time to illustrate her own feelings of isolation and abandonment during her mother’s serious illness. Like much of her work, the video becomes a placeholder through which the artist revisits the experience of grief or loss.
In the video Twenty Years Gone (2012), the incubation of personal meaning over long stretches of time reaches its terminus. The camera trained on a blackboard, words appear in white chalk, one at a time, quickly erased by the artist’s hand and just as quickly replaced. The source text is a love letter written to the artist by a high school boyfriend. The blackboard is a clear allusion to memories of adolescence, but also presents the information as didactic, a means through which to interpret the somewhat more reticent works on view. However, the words disappear as quickly as they come. As soon as we grasp the feeling behind them, they slip away from us. The artist works to erase each word, only to have it replaced by another as if these painful sentiments have bubbled up from her unconscious in spite of her best efforts to snuff them out.
In order to produce the video, Hechtman rewrote the letter, word by word, no doubt committing it to memory in the process. With each word rapidly appearing and receding in the palimpsest of white chalk, a lost love is nearly invoked, but unable to be seen as a whole, it remains intangible, out of reach. Both the meaning of the words and the logic of sensorial input crack, leaving a profound sense of absence, a lack of closure. Hechtman invests heavily in these fissures of meaning, where many artists work to avoid them. We are once again guided into the forest, and left to make our own route through and out.
The viewer as walker, the exhibition as a wooded place is an apt metaphor for Suddenly Everything Has Changed. Many of Hechtman’s works echo the desires of the wanderer in nature, who sets out to encounter the solitude and immersion within place that can make familiar objects or territories seem alien. The walker is outside of the world, perhaps even outside of herself: fully awake to the possibilities found in the overlooked, enraptured by the mundane, attuned to the emotional resonance of great and small things alike.
Evan Smith is an interdisciplinary artist and writer living in Boston. He is a Contributing Editor for Big Red & Shiny, and his written work has also appeared in Art New England and ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media Art. He has curated projects at Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media, the ACT Cube at MIT, 808 Gallery at Boston University and the Godine Gallery. Evan is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art + Design’s Studio for Interrelated Media and Department of the History of Art.
Mentor David Ebony is currently a Contributing Editor of Art in America. He is also the author of a monthly column for Yale University Press online. He lives and works in New York.
This essay was written as part of the Young Art Critics Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which appoints established art critics to serve as mentors for emerging writers. In 2014, CUE joined forces with Art21, combining the Young Art Critic program with the Art21 Magazine Writer-in-Residence initiative. Each writer composes a long-form critical essay on one of CUE’s exhibiting artists for publication in CUE’s exhibition catalogue, which is also published by Art21 in its online magazine. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. For additional arts-related writing, please visit on-verge.org.