Alison Hall: Perception Reordered

Nov 7, 2018 7:35PM


Alison Hall works in a small, unconventional studio space on the upper floor of a public library. Because the library is located in an area of Brooklyn consisting mainly of low buildings, Hall benefits from a degree of luminosity that is rare for a studio in New York. More schoolroom than traditional painter’s studio in scale and layout, the expansive windows that dominate two of its walls are its primary virtue. This limits the available space on which to hang paintings, but more than makes up for it by bathing the remaining surfaces in an even, natural light.

This quality of light is integral to both the making and the viewing of Hall’s paintings. As the day unfolds, and the sun tracks across the surfaces of her works, what at first seem to be stoic, minimal planes are enlivened with a subtle but constant flux and change as relationships between mark and field are established, broken, and reestablished with the shifting visibility of one or another part of a given painting. Some aspects of the paintings are more evident in low light, for example—like the sense of unity and totality of the painted monochrome surface—while others emerge with a greater degree of illumination, like the graphite marks that punctuate most of Hall’s paintings.

These marks manifest in two primary forms: as points and as dashes. The points float in evenly spaced, star-like formations, often within the bounds of irregular, billowing containers, while the dashes are organized in several different ways. Sometimes they are arranged vertically, other times horizontally, in many paintings diagonally and, especially in large works, in intuitive combinations of several, or even all, of these possibilities. At times they join together to form a trapezoidal grid. This connects them to Italian Futurist artist Giacomo Balla’s visually intense Iridescent Interpenetrations of 1912, which were among the first works to use such a modular grid.

However, Hall’s works evince none of the optical pop-and-lock of Balla’s pioneering paintings. Instead her use of graphite, a fragmented deployment of the grid, and an overarching insistence on irregularity, among other things, suggests Agnes Martin as a closer analogue. Like Hall’s, Martin’s penciled lines often emerge from reduced, even monotone grounds only with close, sustained inspection. Further, their clearly handmade qualities invest what can otherwise appear to be a minimally inflected expanse with feeling. Like with Hall, the durational aspect of Martin’s painting practice—the time and labor exerted—is evident in our perception of the finished work. It is made legible via the hand-executed qualities of both the painted field and the drawn marks, and thus our experience of the work unfolds in time as we vicariously experience the sensation of determination applied—via gesso, paint, and pencil—to a panel, and in this way transformed into a painting.

The fluid, ever-changing aspect of perceiving Hall’s work is hard to discern from photographs, which essentially freeze a single moment of its continuous unfolding. Yet, in person nothing about her paintings is static. Viewed from one angle, Hall’s pencil marks shimmer like the tips of ocean waves glimmering in moonlight, while from another angle all this disappears and it seems as if we are approaching a mute, obdurate plane that has been sliced out of a darkened void. This oscillation between revelation and concealment continues indefinitely as long as we actively behold one of Hall’s works, which is to say move around it. For our movement back and forth around the work is integral to a complete experience of it, otherwise we are seeing just one facet of it, much like the camera lens does.

Each graphite mark in one of Hall’s works is a singular atom that, joined with other marks, accumulates to give form to a painting. Further, they function as a means of sorts for condensing attention, drawing us in, and also reordering our perception of the painting as a whole, which then changes as our eyes dart around the work, ceaselessly establishing associations, only to break and then refashion them as we compare one mark to another, and then to another, and then back to the first one again, and so on ad infinitum.

This connects Hall’s work to Antonio Calderara’s. Calderara was an Italian painter who, like his near contemporary Giorgio Morandi, came to a more reduced way of working only in the 1950s, towards the end of his life. Like Hall, Calderara’s paintings typically consist of a few simple relationships. Even if some works have many forms, and others only a few, they are always brought together through clearly delineated formal affiliations. For example, these associations are often established within a close-valued palette that requires the viewer to spend time with the work in order to parse the compositional distinctions within it. This places Hall perhaps even closer to Calderara than to Agnes Martin. After all, Martin often works with a juxtaposition of graphite lines against a thinly applied painted field. The kind of condensed, layered intensity we find in Hall is more present in Calderara, and in other artists of that generation, such as Morandi, both of whom achieved a sense of a compact, substantial surface into which the labor of picture making is condensed.

One could say that Hall extends the venerated lineage of the close-valued, monochromatic painting, one that takes time and the active participation of the viewer to truly experience. This tradition goes back at least to the turn of the 20th Century work of Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, following on to Robert Delaunay, and then to the late work of Mark Rothko and Reinhardt, to name just a few key practitioners of the idiom. Like these precursors, Hall’s paintings are made completely freehand and intuitively, despite the fact that the presence of geometric forms such as grids and trapezoids makes it seem otherwise.

This is not to say that Hall doesn’t consciously start somewhere. Indeed, she takes inspiration from historical places and works of art that she has seen and revisited countless times over the years. Of these, perhaps of greatest importance is Giotto’s Arena Chapel. In some of her work we discover the pattern of the chapel’s floor (which, incidentally, is not by Giotto, but rather dates from the 16th Century) in the grid of trapezoids that sometimes organizes her signature graphite dash marks. In other works, with her field of penciled points, Hall references the pattern of painted stars that covers the ceiling of the chapel. However, it is important to note that it is not necessary for the viewer to know these references to properly perceive Hall’s paintings. In casting her gaze back in time Hall is responding to the sensations she had while standing in the chapel, which is to say to the structure of affect that centuries ago Giotto constructed formally through an interplay of painting and architecture.

It is thus that Hall recognized a motif that she could appropriate for her work, and in doing so harness some of its effects for her own, original aesthetic purposes. This is not, however, the end point of the work, but rather just its beginning. By isolating one component of the chapel’s overall plan and transporting it into the present it is inevitable that the function of the motif will change. Further, Hall has internalized this sensation she had in the chapel, and when she deploys the star motif, it is not so as to create a representation of a fragment of the ceiling, but rather she approaches the set dimensions of her panel support (another nod to the early Renaissance) as a frame for a set of actions. The boundary is literal, but not temporal, and as such Hall may spend extended periods of time working on even very small works.

In another gesture back in time, Hall begins every painting as if it were a fresco, preparing her panels with layers of plaster gesso, each of which she sands before adding the next. It is on this dense and substantial (but not physically imposing) ground that Hall begins the painting proper. Her technique, in its rigor and repetitive nature, draws from her working class background growing up in rural Virginia, where she continues to maintain a studio, in which she makes her larger paintings. In this she is aligned with artists like Agnes Martin and Carl Andre, who also found a model for a contemplative art in the most mundane daily activities. Martin in the plains of Saskatchewan and Andre working on the railroad harnessed these experiences as the grounds of a meditative space, one for individuals whose socioeconomic circumstances closed them off from the more familiar vehicles for such “refined” modalities of experience, such as yoga or art.

This interjection of labor into the work, as I suggested earlier, accounts for the ways in which the marks in Hall’s paintings are not simply casual gestures, but rather are freighted with the attention that she has injected into them via careful placement and execution. This further lends Hall’s work an ethical dimension. Her paintings cannot be reduced to a simple, compensatory attempt to throw a roadblock of slow looking into a world determined by the speed and distraction of technology. It is true of course that Hall’s paintings require and reward slow looking, but it is not enough for a painting, any painting, to do this. Indeed, a painting must propose and offer something for the viewer, beyond simply stopping them in their tracks. What Hall’s paintings offer is a structure by which to explore the rewards—phenomenological as well as intellectual—of concentrated attention. Her paintings propose that this is not a singular activity, but rather one that quickly expands and multiplies into an endless organization, breaking, and reorganization of relationships, just like her paintings do. There this happens in a necessarily abstract way, through formal associations established by the painting. However, for an astute viewer these logics are easily extractable and applicable to real life situations.