121 Patrick Hill

Born Royal Oak, MI, 1972 / BFA, University of Michigan; MFA, Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, CA / Lives in Southfield, MI

You could be forgiven for mistaking Patrick Hill for a minimalist. After all, a cursory glance at his sculptures will tell you that he is a native speaker of that iconically laconic language. Geometric forms in clean configurations? Check. An aesthetic of carefully considered refusal and reduction? Certainly. An exquisite sensitivity to space, balance, and the materiality of matter? That’s him, all right.

But in its reductive simplicity, minimalism ultimately leads to a conceptual dead-end. “What you see is what you see” only gets you so far in a time when art aspires to boundlessness. Taking cues from feminist artists, Hill circumvents this impasse by using minimal forms to go deep inside, to explore the body and aspects of subjective experience like identity, sexuality, frailty, and failure. (In his words: “It’s Richard Serra, only less ‘dude’.”) He finds source material not just in material itself, but in his personal experience and the wider worlds of fashion, pop culture, art history, and Eastern aesthetics and spirituality—a sprawling mixture that accretes, in his hands, into fragile monuments to interiority and human imperfection.

Consider Long Suffering (2014), a folded steel wedge whose gleaming, untreated exterior surface belies the secret vulnerability of its interior, which the artist has coated in delicately veined, hand-dyed purple paper. For Hill, subjective experience is inextricably linked to vulnerability, to bodily dysfunction and peril; a looming presence in his life and work is a brain tumor that he has lived with since 2001, and whose subsequent life-changing effects have included seizures and surgeries. The diagnosis came shortly after he finished grad school in Los Angeles, and just before he began to earn commercial success in the gallery scene there. The tumor and Hill’s practice, then, developed in tandem, and the one haunts the other. There are overt references, such as his 2004 series of “anti-tumor paintings,” made in part from crushed berries (for color, but also their symbolic significance; Hill notes that they are rich in cell-defending antioxidants), as well as subtler, recurrent gestures in his sculptures of penetration and cutting, and persistent themes of discomfort and mortality.

But if the tumor’s influence is profound, it is not absolute. Appreciation of Hill’s work does not depend upon knowledge of his condition, and his masterful abstract forms are capacious, holding space for many more of his experiences and proclivities, as well as viewers’ impressions. In Screen (2009), a monstrous mass of dyed concrete regards itself in a svelte pane of tinted glass; the tumor is there, if you’re looking for it, but you might instead focus on Hill’s tendency to juxtapose materials that hold vastly different resonances, getting at truth through paradox. Untitled (Sculpture for the Dead) (2004), meanwhile, includes tie-dyed denim strips that are a nod, Hill says, to his years as a Deadhead in the Pacific Northwest. Pressing up from the frayed fabric runner and resting against one another are three slicing glass quadrilaterals; at once alarmingly fragile and pregnant with real danger, these remind viewers of their own vulnerable bodies.

Heightened bodily awareness is central to the experience of being with Hill’s emphatically three-dimensional sculptures. Not only do you often find yourself reflected in them (they frequently incorporate mirrored surfaces), you feel compelled to walk around them, and they are alive in space, seeming to shift and recalibrate along the way. For “Leavings,” his 2018 exhibition at Detroit’s Center Galleries, viewers were invited to perambulate around a great table set with some two dozen small works made, in part, from fragments of disassembled old sculptures; you had to hunch down to look close.

On view were classic Hill feats of joinery and balance, intersection and juxtaposition, all miniaturized (domesticated?), and unified by their plush purples, blues and blacks. Nestled among them were funereal stacks of pillows and dyed fabric, laid on wood or marble and bound with rope or craft store ribbon. Hill calls these “offerings.” They are curious, quiet works, audacious in their homespun simplicity. They feel empty and full, private and public. They evoke, again, the body. (“When you’re sleeping,” Hill says of the pillows, “you’re as vulnerable as can be.”) Their contradictions whisperingly situate the human subject somewhere between the primeval and the quotidian, and between individualized inner experience and the rock-hard truths of material existence. Without sentimentality, but with characteristic economy and compassion, Hill compresses the sweep of life and death into these delicate bundles, which, you can’t help but notice, could all too easily come undone.

Matthew Piper, March 2019

Copyright Essay’d 2019