There is a line of reasoning that flows through Sarah J. Hull’s solo show, Taxonomy of Evanescence, at Studio 1469. These works are not about meditation, they are meditation. The work itself is a record of actions taken, so regardless of what the artist’s practice has in common with minimalist aesthetics, she finds herself keeping company with Agnes Martin’s more expressionist leanings. Experimenting with different ways to layer her textiles, her conceptual process is essentially the same. It follows a preconceived set of steps that require a firm sense of who she is and how she fits into the world. “I like to think that there’s an ongoing dialogue between myself and the materials,” (1.) submits Hull.
Perhaps we can see this best in Hull’s Phronesis series. Phronesis, in Aristotelian terms, is the form of wisdom that propels an individual to make and reflect upon choices. Often translated as “prudence,” this kind of understanding is learned through action. This is an apt metaphor for Hull’s intentions, because so much of what she does as an artist is informed by her work in other areas of her life. There is a methodical grounding to her practice that reflects both her training in Iyengar yoga and her background in architecture. It is not enough for her to make beautiful things. She strives to get behind the surface layers of their and our existence. “As my work explores the naturally occurring rhythmic repetition and variation present in nature,” she says, “described by science and mathematics and echoed in daily personal existence – calling them artifacts of meditative processes would be a reasonable way to describe them.”
The Phronesis series are textiles characterized by white, silk embroidery applied to tightly-stretched linen. Using a classic Rhodes stitch, she forms rectangles and squares that rise off the backing in a bulge. As a result of this crossing pattern, these silk appliqués twist as they ascend off the linen. Hull explains that her initial compositions were symmetrical, which can be seen in Phronesis. 08 (Ascend). She had originally thought this rigid balance was necessary to maintain stability. Reversing herself, she now favors more intuitive arrangements, as seen in Phronesis. 10 (Setu – Bridge). Hull explains her move to freer compositions in this way, “I soon realized that this piece (Phronesis. 10) was the next step in the progression of the series – utilizing the vocabulary of inversions and rotated symmetries created in the earlier works, I started to decentralize the forms. Pushing them to the edges, aligning the edges to create more space – a lightness.”
Having conceived, designed, and hung this exhibition herself, Hull was able to control not only which pieces would be included, but where they would be placed. These are not just casual decisions because Hull often builds to the space in which she is showing, taking into consideration what pieces she will need to make and how they will interact. Hull explains, “as I’m working I tend to think about how I would hang the series together – what their ideal relationship would be within the space of a gallery.” This took on a special significance for Taxonomy of Evanescence because her work was changing throughout its production. In this way, viewers are not only able to review her installations, but also the evolution of her thought.
Hull’s work took a dramatic shift in 2020, which would eventually culminate in the Topological Series. Though no less carefully considered, Hull began experimenting with texture along with different stages of refinement. Usually much more restrained, she began experimenting with media, such as dangling strands of thread, adding inconsistent areas of color, allowing unfinished edges to show, and creating flaps that hang away from the work. In Hull’s words, “With the Topologicals I’m using various layers of linen ground fabric, sewn together, further hand stitched, painted, then stitched on again and painted further. Selectively building up layers and emphasizing seams that become lines to create a grid structure. With the paint, I worked to bring subtle variation in the white used – through the use of different gessos or no gesso and slight shifts in the hues and tonal values.” We can see her newfound freedom, along with her renewed emphasis on layers, in works like Topological.01. Yet, however unpolished these textiles may have become, there is still discernible control over every aspect of their making.
To understand Hull’s work is to understand that she is not just sharing objects, but offering us a sense of herself, thus, the descriptive text that accompanies her exhibitions has always been of particular importance to her practice. Thus, it seems appropriate that her writing is now finding its place in the work itself. In the center of the gallery space Hull has displayed two companion books for her textile series, Phronesis and Topological. These are not conventional volumes, but non-linear books forms with translucent pages which allow the viewer to juxtapose different words and illustrations by refolding them in different directions. In this way they are capable of generating many more meanings within the books themselves, which in turn also connect to the exhibition as a whole. “Exploring these forms is a lot like the process of exploring an idea or even a piece of art,” says Hull.
The artist’s encouragement of investigation and interaction among her viewers goes further in this show. Declining a traditional show description, Hull collaborated with artist Joshua Dunn to install a lightbox at the end of the gallery’s entrance ramp. The box contains semi-transparent pages, one on top of another, arranged in such a way that different readings can be gained by reading the text on the top layer, or the text on the bottom layer, or some combination of both. Influenced by the visual constructions of poets/writers, such as Tiana Clark and Jenny Offill, Hull’s statement reads more like verse than prose. This would seem like a good choice for a show that is so carefully constructed because it gives viewers a greater opportunity to come to their own understanding of what the exhibition might mean.
Taxonomy of Evanescence presents different layers of an artist’s life for us to explore. Emanating from her internal sense of how the world is organized, Hull reveals her intentions with clarity, while reserving enough latitude for the observer to make personal connections to them.
Taxonomy of Evanescence can be seen at Studio Gallery 1469, at 1469 Harvard St NW (rear), Washington, District of Columbia 20009, Open Fridays 3:00pm – 7:00pm, Saturdays 12:00pm – 4:00pm, and by appointment, call 202-518-0804 for more information.
Artist Talk: Thursday, May 12, 6:30pm (in person with live stream)
Closing Reception: Sunday, May 22, 10:30am – 12:30pm (with bagels and coffee)
(1.) All quotations taken from direct communication with the artist for this article.