Hilarie Mais: The Unlocked Grid - Art Collector

Issue 12, April - June 2000

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Felicity Fenner maps out the territory occupied by one of our most collected contemporary artists, Hilarie Mais.

A favourite artist in the collections of architects, Hilarie Mais is best known as a sculptor of spiral and mostly grid-based structures which are hung on the wall, or, more typically, leant casually against it. She rose to prominence in the Australian art world of the 1980s, her work selected for the Sydney Biennale (twice, in 1986 and ‘88), major exhibitions such as Australian Perspecta in Sydney and the Australian Sculpture Triennial in Melbourne, and acquired for the collections of most state galleries and notable public and corporate collections around Australia. More recently, Mais’s work has travelled in group exhibitions to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Scandinavia. At the time of writing, Mais is engaged with the Millennium Gates project for the Sydney Sculpture Walk.

Born in Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1952, Hilarie Mais attended Winchester School of Art and later the Slade School of Fine Art in London. She moved to New York in 1977 upon completion of her art studies, creating and exhibiting sculpture for four years before moving to Sydney in 1981. One of the earliest published reviews of Mais’s work was written in 1978 by Holland Cotter of the SoHo News, who considered her wall sculptures at Cunningham Ward Gallery “a combination of whimsy and strength”. He also described the artist’s early interest in the infinite structural and evocative potential of line and space, noting that “she seems interested in a paradoxical conception of line as structure, partitioning and defining spacial (sic) units, and as the central, non-functional element for which space exists merely as a framing medium”.

The artist’s preoccupation with line and space continues to inform her practice today, as does the experience of being a young British artist in the early 1970s. Brancusi, Kapoor, Andre and Serra have all exerted some influence over Mais’s approach to her work since she started making sculpture 30 years ago. As Nick Waterlow pointed out in his catalogue essay to her 1997 exhibition at Sydney’s Sherman Galleries, Mais’s interest in British constructive art also links her to lesser known artists such as the sculptor Kenneth Martin. David Bomberg’s paintings of slanted, geometric forms abstracted from life are also recalled in Mais’s early sculptural experiments in steel. Angular and spiky, yet with an almost anthropomorphic ghostly presence, her work from the beginning invested the minimalist lexicon of modernism with a humanist quality that engages the viewer on a number of levels – visual, sensual and imaginative. Mais’s ability to animate a grid and the space within it is articulated by Anne Loxley in her insightful text for the 1995 monograph published on the artist’s work by Fine Arts Press.

The grid as the basis for artistic compositions has been claimed in the late twentieth century as a pivotal motif of modernism. Yet Mais’s interest in the grid stems as much from her study of medieval motifs and architecture. Elwyn Lynn wrote in 1987 of the Celtic echoes in Mais’s work and found a parallel in the Celtic origins of art nouveau. Indeed, Mais had an early interest in the designs of William Morris, as is evident in some of her spiral works from the mid 1980s. York Minster, England’s largest Gothic cathedral and monument to medieval building skills, is another important aspect of the artist’s local cultural heritage. Mais is particularly fascinated not only with the cruciform plan, but with the distinctive soaring ceiling, and complex junctions of wooden beams.

The craftsmanship of Mais’s constructions is evident in the hand-painted finish of the surfaces and the visible joins in the carpentry, two aspects of her sculpture which reveal the artisan’s labour, thus contradicting the modernist ethic of authorial removal. Although she doesn’t self-consciously align herself with feminist art, Mais’s critical engagement with tenets of modernism parallels that of other women artists since the 1960s who have sought to reinvest traces of the human experience into the minimalist aesthetic of modernism. Mais’s constructions which lean against the wall intervene on the space around them, another conceptual strategy associated with feminist installation art. A student work from 1971 entitled The Artist saw an unadorned canvas stretched over the top half of a female mannequin, the whole structure bleached white and sited on a stairway. While making a witty acknowledgement of the prevailing artistic trend of the time towards minimalist and monochromatic painting, it directly relates to Louise Bourgeois’s drawing Femme-Maison, 1946-47, where a woman’s head and torso is replaced with the image of a house, and of course, with a tongue-in-cheek nod to traditional gender-specific roles in art (where men paint and women model), and to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. These deliberate references to her own experience as a female artist locate Mais’s practice from early in her career within a lineage of self-reflexive feminist art.

Unlike many first generation minimal artists, Mais has allowed the emotional experiences of life to inform the visual and allusionistic character of her work. The birth of her children impacted on her conceptual process, as it has for many women artists; as did moving countries, firstly from England to New York and then to Australia, where feelings of displacement were contrasted with unexpected visual forms of inspiration. For the first time aspects of the artist’s physical environment influenced the poetic character of the work: curved, biomorphic forms rendered in contrasting rich colours replaced the mostly monochromatic steel compositions of the 1970s. It was these works that introduced Mais into the local art world, most notably in Australian Perspecta 1985, where she initiated the practice of replacing the portrait busts in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales with contemporary responses.

These quirky objects, which resembled strange and colourful artefacts from an alien civilisation, were later reabsorbed into Mais’s primary interest in linear forms and the space between them, a transition best articulated by an installation made for the 1986 Biennale of Sydney. Doors, Thoughts: The Maze represents a turning point in the artist’s oeuvre: the dreamy emblems float high on the wall as testament to Mais’s intuitive rapport with historical and spiritual presence, while the wooden construction of the lattice grid below marks a return to the flattened geometric forms of earlier work. Manifestations of subconscious dreams, fears and desires, the ‘thoughts’ above seem to have ascended from the structural rigour of the doors below. Interestingly, metaphors of flight reappear in Mais’s current series of work (1999-2000). This particular piece, however, underwent a reincarnation for the next Australian Biennale, in 1988. The small icons were dispersed to collectors and the doors were cropped at the top, repainted in deep red and locked at the front with a heavy chain. Retitled Doors: The Maze, 1986-87, the new composition ensured that lurking whimsies and hidden thoughts were securely locked behind closed doors.

In late 1997, The Australian newspaper’s art critic Giles Auty, known to be dismissive and intolerant of contemporary art, wrote about Mais’s recent work in unusually glowing terms. “Her art has little to do with the physical appearance of anything outside itself but exists as a series of beautiful, intelligent and self-contained entities. Its source is a private alchemy of personal endeavour to transform fleeting feeling into something more precious and permanent. Blind Smile and Night Volumes are especially typical of the strange and beautiful subtlety of her work.” The latter work evolves from an earlier diptych, bearing effigy, 1994, which saw the introduction of canvas painting into Mais’s practice. Both works comprise a square lattice grid of painted wood resting on the floor with an adjacent, painted echo of that grid hanging on the wall. In Night Volumes, 1997, the negative spaces of the wooden construction become the darkened ground of the painting, while the finite horizontal and vertical lines which make up the constructed grid are reflected in the painting as luminous and ephemeral. This play between positive and negative space is a recurrent theme, which in Mais’s work refers to the slippage zones that lie between vision and illusion, knowledge and perception.

In 1998 Mais created an all-white work titled Sleeping Birds.It is a meditative and understated work, exuding a hushed ambivalence which is reflected in the title (how do birds sleep?) Based on a square grid but without the three dimensional interplay of space that characterises the open grids, the lack of structural activity aligns this work more with painting than with sculpture. Since then, Mais has turned her attention from floor-based to wall-based sculpture. In the latest series of work, her intention is to visually lock into the wall space rather than prop against it, thus creating an exhibition installation which is more like painting in spirit than it is sculptural. The new works, from 1999 and early 2000, dispense with the outside borders of the grid, allowing the horizontal lines, and in some cases the verticals, to reach out from the more complex centre of the composition, like tentacles stretching from a dense bodily mass.

One of the key works is rendered in various hues of sky blue, the application of paint rich and uneven, the horizontal extensions deliberately random in length. Surrounded by an almost metaphysical blue aura, it is suggestive of changeable atmospheric conditions, an allusion which enhances the work’s gently poetic description of the ephemeral, unpredictable nature of perception and experience. The painted blue surface appears to pulsate with an undulating energy that flows beyond the open edges of the structure through the outstretched horizontal lines extending from either side. The idea of the outstretched arms refers to the image of the Vitruvian man, famously adopted by Leonardo da Vinci as a measure of composition and scale. Hilarie Mais always works to the scale of the human body: when smaller-than-life pieces are created they are positioned on the wall to best engage with the audience’s line of vision.

These new compositions also relate to the Weapon series of diminutive steel sculptures made in New York in 1980. Reminiscent of domestic shapes such as washboards and grills, these works also featured extended vertical lines. The translucent, illusionistic quality of the new work, however, is in stark contrast to the medieval menace of these earlier domestic nasties. Though the current works share a reference to women’s art and craft, not only in their humanised scale, but in the visual mimicry of textiles, in this case woven compositions which seem to be fraying at the edges.

Another of the larger new works is made up of two sections, hung with a narrow gap between and tapering off in dramatic horizontal gestures to either side, like eagle’s wings spread for flight. Painted in dense greys that merge into indigos and oxides, this work sits like a silhouette against the wall, evoking feelings of volume and eloquence on the one hand, transience and evolution on the other. Its composition relates to earlier work, specifically Doors III of 1988, though in that piece the two sections were leant against the wall like two halves of a dismantled gate, unable to meet. Where the earlier work spoke of loss and fragility, this new incarnation of a similar composition exudes liberty and strength.

In discussing these new works, Mais uses adjectives that describe a process of softening and deconstruction, words such as shifting, shedding, tearing, shattering and blurring. Where the enclosed grid is a metaphorical and physical container of thoughts and concepts, the open-edged works facilitate an even greater flow of positive and negative space. On a narrative level, they infer psychological and emotional release, describing an almost cathartic gesture through which a process of osmosis can occur between inner and outer realms.


Hilarie Mais made her gallery debut in the group exhibition Seven Sculptors at the Guildhall Gallery in Winchester, England in 1974 and her first solo show at the Cunningham Ward Gallery, New York in 1977. Mais exhibited extensively in both the US and in England before moving to Australia in 1981.

Picked up by Roslyn Oxley in Sydney in 1984 and Christine Abrahams in Melbourne in 1986, Mais began a regular series of solo exhibitions with both these leading contemporary galleries. Her work has also been included in numerous prestigious group shows such as Australian Perspecta in 1986, Systems End in 1996 and the Home and Away touring exhibition in 1999.

Mais had her first solo exhibition at Sherman Galleries in 1994 and won the Blake Prize for religious art the same year.

Extensively reviewed and critically lauded since her arrival in Australia, Mais s work is included in most of the country’s leading private, corporate and public collections including the National Gallery of Australia, all major state galleries, the Seidler Collection, the Smorgon Collection and TABCORP Collection.

Mais has had only one work offered at auction. The painting Untitled 6, 1988, sold at Lawsons in 1992 for $300 against an estimate of $2,000 to $3,000. Mais s work, like many of her contemporaries, is radically undervalued and offers secondary market collectors a chance to start collecting her art at entry level prices. From her dealer galleries, collectors can expect to pay $5,000 to $25,000 for her major works.

Hilarie Mais s next solo show will be held at Sherman Galleries Goodhope from June 1-24 and she will be included in the Olympics showcase Harbour of Life: Arrivals at Sherman Galleries Hargrave from September 13-30. Mais continues to be represented in Melbourne by the Christine Abrahams Gallery.

Andrew Frost

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