Visual Arts Program

Friday, September 13 — Friday, October 25

Shea Hembrey

ash works

In conversing about his new series ash works, Shea Hembrey has alluded multiple times to the future. That the work is about the future. It seems antithetical to frame a substance that is the natural endgame of a destructive and reductive process as something that might point the way forward, but Hembrey often pursues questions from multiple perspectives—the physical and the formal, as well as the conceptual and metaphoric. Ash, then, while remaining a remnant also becomes a signifier of cleansing, a smudged substance that connotes time and reaffirms the present. It resides before us as an element so fragile as to be blown away but sufficiently persistent to be bound together in numerous artistic states, painted and sculpted, in such a way as to defy its ephemeral qualities and suggest realms of possibilities.

These wide-ranging states of meaning are the direct residue of Hembrey's research-based practice, where maximal questions reduce themselves down to minimal, direct forms of expression. In questioning the "nature of reality" and exploring quixotic notions of dark matter and the universe, Hembrey created multi-layered painting works that reference and utilize classical trompe l'oeil techniques. In considering the art world, its varying states of applied value, and the myopia of one's artistic practice, he created a 100-artist biennial project in which he created the work for each participating artist. His current work, still in its nascent stages, springboards from the simple act of transformation of object to ash and what this transformative effect implies and what it can physically become.

There are aggressive inflections to Hembrey's conflation of ash as the future, as though his first best instinct, in our present moment, is to simply burn this mother down and start again through some process of destructive catharsis. There is a giant rope form with an ashen tip entitled fuse that directly evokes that sentiment. But in most cases, the implications of Hembrey's works are subtle and layered—even fuse is not attached to anything and has an ambiguous functionality. A series of square paintings rendered in ash and clear acrylic binder, When The Grid Falls, is not necessarily a dire social warning, but a gentler suggestion where the softening of minimalist grid structures is an inducement to break down constrictions, think outside the box, dissolve into some less rigid and hopelessly enclosed way of thinking. All their hard edges are fading away and all their hues are shades of grey—uncertain, unresolved, as though they are midway through a transformation into another form, another self.

Transformative states are also embodied in water swallows ash, ash swallows water, as a series of bowls in which vary proportions of ash, burnt elements, and acrylic resin are sculpted into still pools of votive gestures. But Hembrey's gestures are never exclusively metaphoric or poetic. These bowls also resolve an artistic question about how to utilize the near-nothingness of ash as a sculptural material. They are formal and conceptual; they appeal to visual cues of beauty and philosophic cues of contemplation. They are, at once, literally so much nothing and so much something.

So much nothing and so much something also resides emphatically in 71 faiths, a series of scale pans, each with a bag of ash upon it, each bag of ash the remnants of a burnt but unidentified sacred text. The tenderness of Hembrey's presentation belies what one might read as aggressively anti-religious and pro-reason. It may have some of that, but there is also a sense of commonality, that different sacred texts—and all that they imply—reduce to the same delicate pile of powder. It is impossible not to come away with the sense of common humanity, that we are all in it together and that the resolute differences we apply to our belief systems are meaningless distinctions. The care with which Hembrey treats these remnants and their glistening presentation in bright, clear bags on silver platforms maintains a sense of reverence and high regard, even in their destroyed ashen state. At the same time, the celebratory reverence may be for the fact that they are reduced to ash.

Art history meets a similar fate in the moon, a smudge of ash in the sky, calls to you—pulls at you like a tide uncornered, unboxed, slipped from its lavender blue perch. Piles of hundreds of burnt art history texts reside among piles of richly-colored salts, against which they appear underwhelming and insignificant compared to one of the most fulsome mineral elements in the world. Framed from above by a line of crescent moons made from drum skins and ash, the overall work opens up the space of time and draws us into questions of what is most resilient over time. Salt is glistening and beautiful in appearance, sometimes with a heady smoked aroma. Art history, and all its attendant meanings and pretensions, lies blankly by comparison, a form that evokes its own emptiness.

But Hembrey's ash works are not mired in the darkness of their primary substance. Repeatedly, ash is used to create, to paint, to sculpt and to underscore possibility. In remedy, a series of jars containing salamander forms emerging from ash, serve as his de facto phoenix rising. Historically, salamanders are tightly connected to fire, thought to be born of it and able to withstand or put out fire. Hembrey's salamanders, perched elegantly within various dustings of ash, appear as lithe icons of resilience.

Similarly, cessus, an ash wall drawing of the most recent tree to go extinct, an olive tree on the island of Saint Helena. While the title of the piece refers to having conceded or given up, Hembrey's olive tree rises from a line drawn directly from a mound of ash populated by cone forms, as though growing from an abstracted and resplendent forest. The piece is both an elegy and an ascendant gesture. It is bleak and aspirational.

The conceptual and formal challenges of working with ash—a substance as close to nothingness as one could get—naturally infers a certain darkness. But Hembrey's work, again and again, skews toward optimism. So, if ash works is about the future, it is not a future saturated by bleakness. Collectively, his actions, formations, and material realizations are shamanistic rituals—specific, repeated, sometimes minute—that engage and activate his primary substance. His shaman identity is a hybrid of creator/destroyer/preserver. Through his transformative gestures, ash turns away from its identity of grim portend and towards its possibility as a rejuvenating force.

John Massier
Visual Arts Curator