Art In Conversation
Hilary Harnischfeger with Louis Block
“All of these materials and experiences—past residue—have made their way into my pieces.”
On ViewRachel Uffner Gallery
Six Blocks Away
February 6 – April 3, 2021
There is a dream sequence in John McPhee’s Basin and Range in which a carpet showroom catches fire. The natural fibers burn, the polyesters melt, and a wall caves in with the adjacent business: an ice cream factory. Soon, different flavors flow into the showroom, sugary rivers mixing with and settling on the ruined carpets. Overnight, the whole thing freezes solid. The police and insurance companies cannot determine blame, so they call in a geologist. I imagine that fantastic, multicolor lump would have looked something like Hilary Harnischfeger’s art.
Harnischfeger (b. 1972, Melbourne, Australia) makes what can best be described as hybrids—objects that incorporate ceramic, plaster, paper, and even found minerals. They are fired in a kiln, cast in molds, and carved away, revealing meticulously treated layers of color. It is hard to imagine their constituent elements ever existing apart now that they are so fully enmeshed and impregnated with each other; their surfaces bending and buckling back into the center. Meaning here is tactile and primal, escaping obvious categorization. So, on the occasion of Harnischfeger’s fourth solo show at Rachel Uffner, I asked her about the work’s origins. The following is edited from that conversation.
Louis Block (Rail): How did you choose the title of the show, Six Blocks Away?
Hilary Harnischfeger: Well, it has a dual meaning. I have a studio space that’s actually six blocks away from our apartment, and it’s also the title of a Lucinda Williams song. She’s one of my favorite songwriters, and she’s from a place that’s kind of similar to where I am from—I’ve just always been drawn to her music. I’ve never titled a show before. I wanted a title that related to the idea of location, because a lot of the work deals with places and memories of places. It seemed fitting in that way, framing it in terms of a location or a distance.
Rail: I’m assuming most of these were completed during the pandemic.
Harnischfeger: Yes, that was another meaning behind the title. I was thinking of being in a kind of holding pattern. It’s a little sanguine, the idea of a place being six blocks away—close, but not there. Last March, I found myself in the studio more because I was teaching remotely rather than spending every day in the classroom. This extended time in the studio became much more investigative, more open.
Rail: The titles of several pieces in the show reference a story by Nnedi Okorafor, which focuses on a woman and the futuristic smart house that defends her from a storm while she is in labor. What kind of inspiration do you find in science fiction?
Harnischfeger: Nnedi Okorafor is kind of this amazing, inspiring force of nature. The first time I became aware of her was the “Akata” series I saw at work, because it’s sometimes marketed toward young adults, though I don’t think it really needs to be limited to that. Then more recently, I read her short story, “Mother of Invention,” and I couldn’t get it out of my mind, I kept rereading passages from it. I’ve always liked science fiction, this idea of having past, present, and future overlapping in one story, and this story is able to do that. The story is centered around the relationship between the main character and her AI house, Obi 3. There is an underlying tension about whether the house is a threat or a kind of shape shifting savior. In the piece Obi-3 (2021), there is a printed figure on the surface of the sculpture and she is surrounded by bending planes of material—paper, ceramic—which references what happens at the end of the story.
Rail: It’s a prescient story to read during a pandemic. Looking back to 2015, you titled a piece Chandigarh, after the city planned as the Punjabi capital following Indian independence, and designed by Le Corbusier. I was thinking about that in relation to Okorafor’s story, which has to do with the consequences of an overly aggressive attitude to urban planning and genetic modification.
Harnischfeger: In a very Western way, it is a utopian view. Anytime you have that you’ll see the cracks right away. In that piece I was thinking about surface molds, those big pictorial reliefs on structures, and cantilevers with cast concrete.
Rail: Do you have an interest in architecture?
Harnischfeger: I do. I have architects in my family. My mother is one, and my sister, too. My mother went back to school when I was young, and so in a way my sisters and I went with her. She introduced us to so many different types of architecture, both commercial and residential. It’s a constant source of inspiration and curiosity.
Rail: How do the different processes come together in the studio? The different pieces of ceramic, sculpture, printmaking, how do they all fit together?
Harnischfeger: They each happen on their own before they become one, but I’m aware of how they might fit together to create a potential form. In a piece like Sharp cutting wings (2021) there is a big ceramic scroll. I was running colored clay through the slab roller over and over until the striations would stretch and fissure into brush marks. I bring the fired pieces into the studio and begin to dye paper. Then I start creating these makeshift, temporary molds so that I can combine the paper and the ceramic and plaster so it will be able to hold itself up, and then I start shimming and filling from there.
Where I work often weaves its way into the pieces. While I was teaching silkscreen, I started scanning my ceramics at work before bringing them to the studio as a way to record the shape and surface by putting them on the scanner bed. From those scans I made halftone prints, and there was the idea of having a multiple of these ceramic objects, but flat, and being able to open them up. It’s like cannibalizing that piece or reusing it.
Rail: Is that the image on Ghost-rock (2021)?
Harnischfeger: Yes, the shape is referencing a bust or a torso. It’s also a way of having something not be so precious, making prints and having a few of them. I used to work at a print shop too, which is where I started using the paper cut offs. I had all these paper cut offs from the prints being torn down. All of these materials and experiences—past residue—have made their way into my pieces.
Rail: What kind of dyes and pigments are you using?
Harnischfeger: The ceramic pigment is a stain made from fired clay that’s been ground into a powder, and the dye is usually a fabric dye. I presoak the paper before dyeing it in a cold water bath for a few days so that it penetrates through and locks into the fibers.
Rail: There is a pearlescence and a glossiness on some of the pieces as well.
Harnischfeger: Yes, I mix crushed mica and finely crushed glass into the hydrostone so there is a little bit of resistance and grit. There are also solid pieces of mica on Brazos (2021). It’s a bit like alchemy mixing all these materials together.
Rail: And you reuse molds for different pieces, when you’re pouring in the hydrostone?
Harnischfeger: Absolutely. At the beginning, the pieces don’t have a top or a bottom, so sometimes I’ll just fill part of a mold and bend it so that it’s holding what it needs to. The hydrostone is a kind of reinforced gypsum made for decorative façades and molding. I’ll also dip fiberglass mesh into the hydrostone to get this kind of thin but strong veil, that’s how some of the wall pieces get started.
Rail: But you work subtractively after the pieces are cast, cutting away at the material? I’m thinking especially of the triangular pattern made on Brazos.
Harnischfeger: Definitely. I think it’s a compulsion to continually create and destroy. But I also think it’s to try and reveal the process and the color and the time that went into it, in the same way that erosion works in a landscape. Though it is more aggressive than erosion, like surgery, almost. With Brazos, I got into a sort of a spell, trying to carve out fractals with a razor blade, to make something crystalline. I kept coating it and then taking parts away. It was a very satisfying process of shifts of color. You can peel the layers of paper, almost like picking off layers of skin.
Rail: The palette in the new pieces seems to tend toward cool colors. How much of the color is planned out in advance, since you’re revealing areas that have been obscured by other layers? Is it fair to say that the color is “excavated” more than applied on the surface?
Harnischfeger: I believe in color more when it’s embedded throughout. I like the way embedded color absorbs light and adds to the mass and weight of a piece. It also gives me that option to excavate because I know there is color throughout. When you put these materials through the kinds of physical processes that I do, because of absorption and time and their properties, they do tend to veer towards a cooler temperature. Even with the clay, reds, warm things can be trickier. But I do have a preference for colors that have been bleached out: stones that have been weathered and exposed, the West Texas landscape, or plastic that sits out in the sun. I like color that has leached out a little bit.
Rail: Do you ever use color associatively? Has color led you to make a piece or to make a certain decision in a piece? Or is form always coming before that?
Harnischfeger: I do sometimes with yellow, if I have a vision that I want something to read as kind of a yellow place. Or I’ll have a cloudy vision of lilac. I can’t paint a piece lilac, but it can end up that way through an accumulation and subtractive process. When I look at other art, it’s usually the color that I have a more immediate response to, but not necessarily a bright or saturated color.
Rail: What other art forms do you look at? The pieces are hybrids—ceramic, sculpture, painting, etc. Do you identify more strongly with one of those mediums than the others?
Harnischfeger: I think I am more so obsessed with artifacts, rather than specific art forms, whether it’s carpet remnants and textiles, early glass, books, or minerals. When I started making ceramics, I got really into agateware and different types of pottery, but in terms of contemporary art, I respond to and am constantly inspired by a huge range of work. I don’t think of myself necessarily as any one of the individual things that I do. It might not be obvious, but I do think of the pieces more as drawings. When I’m making them, I am thinking in terms of that relationship to drawing and paper. One of the artists I love to look at is Hermann Finsterlin, especially his drawings. He made almost supernatural designs that were never fully realized as structures, so they exist as drawings. He also made these maquettes out of plaster, but somehow they still feel like drawings.
Rail: Do you maintain a drawing practice alongside the other work? Do you ever work from preliminary sketches?
Harnischfeger: Yes. Most of the sculptural pieces start as drawings on paper. The original drawings get cut, built on top of, scraped or peeled off so only remnants remain. In each of the pieces in the current show I can locate remnants of the original drawings.
Rail: It’s interesting to think about how a mark can exist beyond two dimensions. There are marks that live on the surface of your work, but there are also things like the ceramic scroll forms that are three dimensional kinds of marks, that still have the hand in them. And in Large Erratics (2021) those forms become dense and seem to have been created with lots of pressure.
Harnischfeger: That one is a scroll that I’ve just cut in half. I cut it through the middle, and it became much more, opened up more possibilities. It’s like an autopsy of a scroll.
Rail: That dense layering in your work has usually been described in geological terms, such as rock strata, but it could equally be interpreted as portions of a book, like an old illuminated manuscript, rather than sedimentary layers. Books and rocks are both things that can be “read” once they’re opened.
Harnischfeger: I know that you can see sedimentary layers and erosion in the work, but it also has to do with speed and pressure. That piece has a slanted section, and I wanted it to be as if you were folding the corner of the page. When different planes bend, I do want to create a contained kind of page or space—a picture space rather than a scientific rendering of layers. I’ve always been interested in books as objects. For example, the Morgan Library’s collection of Medieval treasure bindings and illuminated manuscripts exist simultaneously as these sculptural objects, spiritual topography, and text. In this show the pieces displayed on shelves are intentionally displayed at an angle, mounted on steel armatures, to be “read” as well as viewed.
Rail: The current work is not bound to any idea of the rectangle, it grows out of itself to create form. But you do have a series from 2017 where different elements are framed with steel.
Harnischfeger: I was looking at Josef Hoffmann’s brooches—I think I first saw them in the Neue Galerie—and the idea of drawn lines of metal, and then the other parts getting trapped and wedged within them. Even though they are jewelry and meant to be worn, they felt like architecture to me. The scale is tiny, and I wanted to make them bigger.
Rail: Going back further, maybe to your undergraduate degree at the University of Houston, were you working in a more medium-specific way in sculpture or painting? Did you move toward abandoning the rectangle?
Harnischfeger: I was a little older when I went to school, and I was already curious about certain imagery and ways of making things, aligned more with painting in terms of the rectangle or square pieces of paper, and often some kind of substructure. I had two incredible professors. They never asked me why things were coming off the page, or if I was trying to make a hybrid, they just saw this direction I was going in, believed in it, and pushed me to keep going.
Then in graduate school, I happened to be in a studio building with really knowledgeable sculptors. Whenever I had questions, I could ask these really great makers. But there was still this open mindedness, this open terrain for investigation. I guess maybe that’s when I started to think of myself as someone who makes sculpture.
Rail: And where did you first work with ceramics?
Harnischfeger: I loved clay when I was young, when we would get to use clay in school. I love the immediacy and physicality of it and its seductive qualities, but the first time I really tried to apply my set of concerns to clay was in Ohio. I started because of my friend Jeffry Mitchell, who was a visiting artist where I was living in Ohio. He is a prolific and fearless user of materials. He didn’t necessarily tell me how to use clay, but rather noticed the way I was constructing with paper and plaster, and encouraged me to treat the clay as another one of my materials. This open approach encouraged me to take chances with the clay, to allow for chance-based and open operations, such as running the kiln too hot to intentionally cause the clay to fracture and warp.
Rail: What was the natural environment like there?
Harnischfeger: First of all, the colors are different, the light is different, the brick color is different. There are ancient mounds from early cultures that speckle areas of the country in Central Ohio. It’s mysterious—there are businesses next to ancient mounds next to golf courses. I was fascinated simultaneously with that kind of freedom and the clay and the brick colors, all of those things whirling around.
Rail: Do you ever source clay from a specific area for its color?
Harnischfeger: No, I usually impose the color with added pigment.
Rail: Years ago I saw ceramics by Nishida Jun at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. They were fired at extremely high temperatures. They’re cracked open, and you can see how they just begin to melt on the inside.
Harnischfeger: The clay vitrifies when it goes to such a high temperature and can singe at the edges, it’s beautiful when that happens. I haven’t been able to replicate that with any kind of surface glaze. It just needs to fry.
Rail: I’m curious about the different places that you’ve lived. What was it like growing up in Texas? Was there anything that pushed you toward becoming an artist, either museums or the landscape?
Harnischfeger: I was lucky enough to have a parent who was interested and curious about art and architecture. I’m from Houston, and it felt like there was this openness to different genres of art. There wasn’t as much of a high and low art hierarchy. In terms of museums, I loved going to the Menil Collection. I remember seeing the exquisite Surrealist collection and the Byzantine icons there for the first time. There were always surprises. And then getting to go camping in West Texas, where we would drive long ways into completely new terrain, like Big Bend National Park. It was so different, then, coming to New York and being in this space that felt so incredibly dense and stacked. I always have that sense, even now, of being catapulted from a kind of lower slung space to everything being stacked.
Rail: And you’ve also made work in a studio upstate?
Harnischfeger: I did at the Worth Art Advisory Residency years ago in Bovina, NY. We had never spent time up there and to be able have a couple months in the country was pretty magical. The studio is in a barn, and I was able to integrate pieces of the barn into the work that I was making.
Rail: Are those the wooden structures that the pieces hang on?
Harnischfeger: Yes. Parts of the barn that had been cleared out—I think where the animals were fed through slots—all of that was dismantled to make space for the studio. So I was able to use pieces of the dried wood that were just stacked and stored.
Rail: The rocks and the gems that are being embedded in the work now, they’re sourced from all over, right?
Harnischfeger: Yes, sometimes if I go to visit different caves they’ll sell quartz and things from the caves. When I was upstate, there was an amazing mineral dealer who had a place in Margaretville. It’s incredible—I don’t know if he’s still there—but his house is covered, the kitchen, the living room, everywhere with the most incredible collection of minerals. He’s a rockhound to the millionth degree. He would collect from mineral shows and rock conventions all over, and had these amazing stories. I love the people that are real rockhounds, that have these wild stories of where they get rocks. Some of the rocks that are in the most recent pieces are also from visiting friends on the Long Island Sound. I took some of those back to the studio and realized that they were creating an interesting counterpoint to the minerals and the crystals.
Rail: Do you see any possibility for a symbolic reading of material, or is it purely formal? In a way the minerals could be considered concentrated clusters of pigment. I’m also reminded of the practice of embedding Roman cameos on Christian reliquaries, or the use of gems on the covers of gospel books.
Harnischfeger: A lot of times people feel strongly about the properties of the crystals. It’s more about their formal qualities for me. Sometimes when I buy them, the vendor will be selling them to clear certain paths in your aura. It can’t hurt, but that isn’t what the emphasis is.
Rail: It’s rare to be asked that question about a more traditional material, even though many of them come from the same places. Paint is mostly ground up rocks. There’s something about it being whole that prompts that question.
Harnischfeger: It does. It’s already charged, because it’s intact and whole. I think it comes with its own life.
Rail: The scale of the work has remained fairly small. Llano (2020–21) seems to be the outlier, moving from an intimate scale to a more human one. Is that one of the bigger pieces you’ve made?
Harnischfeger: It is. There’s another piece that was a little bigger a while back, but it was made on a panel, so I knew from the beginning that it would be that scale. It felt closer to a painting. Llano is more about a depiction of space rather than the actual thing, if that makes sense?
Rail: It does read in a topographic way, maybe partly because of the scale. Is that title referencing a specific place?
Harnischfeger: It is more topographical. There is a ceramic area that has an opening and a sort of tail coming down that I always thought of as a figure or character within the topography of this space. It’s lightly colored clay so it blends visually with the space around it. The scale also has to do with what I can pick up and move around. Llano is a city, a county, and, most importantly, a geological uplift in Texas. Enchanted Rock, this otherworldly granite mound that ruptures out of the Texas hill country, is part of this ancient 90-mile dome.
Rail: I was wondering how heavy they are.
Harnischfeger: That one is heavy, it takes two people to lift it. Everything else I can lift myself. Going back to artifacts in the Menil and Byzantine icons—these are things that have a relationship with your body, it’s a space that you can relate to. My pieces end up on the wall, but their creative life span is spent moving upside down, sideways, all different kinds of ways on the table. So to have something that is heavier than I can manage is harder. If something is small, I can control the way you have to get close to look at it, but if something is big, it blurs those details a bit. I’m drawn to the idea of cave paintings or things that are built into a space. I love the idea of having something that is larger than you, like Jay DeFeo’s The Rose (1958–66). That feeling of presence and physicality is exciting to me.
Rail: Since all of these pieces are finished and in the gallery now, what are you working on in the studio? Are there pieces from the same series that are ongoing? Do you work in discrete bodies of work or is it more fluid?
Harnischfeger: I am chaotic in the studio. It’s almost like the table and the pieces start merging together—there are pieces and debris everywhere. I have a couple of pieces that are still in progress in the studio. There isn’t a specific plan in terms of finishing things or starting a new series. I’m always thinking or making. There is always this physicality. I am kind of moving and making and building frenetically.
Rail: Do you ever take older pieces that are still in the studio and turn them into material for new pieces?
Harnischfeger: Absolutely. I love doing that. I have a pile of pieces, plastic pieces, clay pieces, old pieces. It’s fun to recontextualize them, like a collage, to try and surprise yourself.
Rail: There is a suggestion in the work that what you’re seeing is part of a larger whole, like a specimen.
Harnischfeger: It is interesting to see that within a body of work. There are canes of the same rolled clay that show up in several of the pieces, for example. If you spend enough time, you can see the same chords or notes throughout the work.
Rail: You mentioned seeing a character within the space of Llano, and I wonder if there is resonance in the idea that if a larger work like that can be considered a landscape with figures, then the smaller works might be closer to the category of portraiture. I know you’ve titled pieces in the past with first names like Agnes (2017) and Astrid (2009). Do you see individual pieces taking on the characteristics of specific people—whether actual or fictional—or even embodying a stranger kind of presence? There is a kind of anthropomorphic tendency in the whole arc of human production, from stone carvings to artificial intelligence.
Harnischfeger: The smaller works do function as portraits, though not always in a directly representational way. The titles are more like ways to mark moments in time. Astrid and Agnes are the names of close friends’ children that were born when I was making those particular pieces.
The compulsion to see a face or figure in a rock formation is definitely connected to how I see the pieces and surface reliefs develop over time. I think this happens when you work on something for a long time, you embed your thoughts, obsessions, longings, and curiosities into that work.