Spring Hurlbut

13 August 1985 - 7 September 1985
Opening Reception 13 August 1985 8pm

West Gallery:

Artist Summer Studio Project: A Column on Location

This exhibition features a hand plastered column created on location by Toronto artist Spring Hurlbut. As part of the summer studio project, Spring Hurlbut has developed her response to the interrelating conditions of the interior gallery space, the ambient light and an existing column over the four week installation period.

The established reference of Spring Hurlbut’s work is the interior architecture of the room. Over the past eight years, she has developed this concern in a series of large, hand-applied plaster walls executed in Canada, the United States and Germany. Spring Hurlbut’s work is location oriented. The plaster surface of the work is developed in relation to the natural ambient light which underscores the visual complexity of the finished piece. Rather than a mechanically executed activity, the application process is an intimate working of the material which combines physical and intellectual consideration.

The work on exhibition at Mercer Union is derived from the artist’s latest installation which involved hand-applying plaster to a Doric column, installed from the floor to the ceiling in the centre of her studio.

Spring Hurlbut attended the Ontario College of Art from 1970 to 1973, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design from 1973 to 1975. Since 1977, Spring Hurlbut has created works on location in London, Ontario (1977, 1979, 1984); Toronto (1981, 1984, 1985); Long Island City, New York (1981); and Stuttgart, West Germany (1983).

The Art Post, October/November 1985
At Mercer Union, Summer Studio Projects kept the humid months interesting. From August 13 to September 7, two pieces showed opposite ends of the artistic endeavor.

Column in Situ by Spring Hurlbut is a well considered attempt at resolving variables of form, light, and colour in a specific environment. The shiny, cylindrical black column is attacked by slate-gray plaster as if by a fire, wide at the base and licking toward the ceiling Sisyphus-like in a frenzy of movement. But like the Biblical burning bush, the column is only a conductor of energy and thus, though seemingly consumed, remains undiminished. As a site-specific sculpture the shape creates a balance through opposition to the bleak, white room. Its movement seems to be vertical, beginning beneath the grey floor and reaching high above the ceiling, as if these were but poor impediments to its upward journey and it was just passing through.

In contrast to this spare, uncluttered work stands The Last Word in Magic a collaborative room-painting by Christophe Crowder and Brent Roe.

The entrance has a time-bleached skull decoratively adorned with dried flowers over a V-shaped mantle, a sentinel belying the “Should we laugh or cry?” questions raised by the work within. Roe’s numerous cartoon sketches depict men and skeletons at work, play and war (a drawing of a man collecting corpses in a donkey cart is set beside one of a man riding a bicycle), all rendered in the same, impartial grey line. Crowder’s larger drawings, using unmixed colours that seem to come straight out of a watercolour set, include a ram’s head, an Illustrated Man and Woman, a cupid, a serpent’s head, a vase, and many abstract looking scribbles that sometimes resolve themselves into figures and some times not. The combined effect of these images is general confusion, which on close inspection sometimes crystallizes into poetry.


Spring Hurlbut
Material Progression
By Goldie Rans
Vanguard, March 1986

Looking back on it, Spring Hurlbut’s draped plaster column seems a predictable departure from her work, but it came nonetheless as a shock. Erected and made in situ near the wall of a long, shallow recess in the gallery, it appeared with the force of a sudden intrusion on some private act. The plain Doric column stood on a pedestal; together they were eleven feet high. From its neck, thick, powerfully worked hanks of grey material twisted and coiled downward in ever-broadening intertwined streams toward the floor where, for me, they took on the look of venerable tree trunks whose deeply ridged crusty bark took the eyes upward again, spreading overhead like tentacles or branches. The column and pedestal were black enabling the work to stand out against the prevailing whiteness of the gallery, and the robing, a neutral, somewhat dark grey, with touches of effervescence (or bloom) where the iron oxide pigment reacted with the mixture of lime, cement, and sand, that is, the plaster. Suggestions of classical stability and purity coming from the column and pedestal were opposed to the complex mobility and expressive potency of the grey plaster coating. The piece had an openness that provoked immediate response from the viewers – quips, questions and the like – referring to an accepted body of ideas on the subject from which, at the same time, it stood apart. It seemed strange and ambiguous, resisting categories and deferring conclusions.

Yet the same can be said about all of Hurlbut’s work, which gathers content slowly, and only when the circumstances of the artist’s specific content and practice have been assimilated and understood. Earlier last year, Hurlbut made another column in her Toronto studio, this time clad in white plaster. Its coat, however, adhered more closely to the shaft of the column before flowing downward in a strong diagonal pull to one side of the pedestal, which it also covered well before reaching the floor. In the light of her white walled studio, and standing against one of her own walls, it looked light and serene, the coils twining downward slowly in a loose, zig-zag pattern alternating with a moment of pliant smoothness before taking on speed, skirting outward, twisting and unwinding, then resting, frozen in the act. The coils themselves in this column had fewer ridges and grooves, especially in the upper parts, than the grey column. a simplification that made it elegant and refined by comparison.

Hurlbut’s material is conventional plaster of the sort used on interior walls in houses every where. In the columns a thin base coat is applied to metal lathing applied to the wooden shaft. The flaring forms have no under-structure because it would predetermine the movement and spatial configuration; column and pedestal provide some support assisted by the quick-drying property of the plaster itself. Up above, the plaster adheres to metal lath stapled to the ceiling. The pigment in the material of the grey column gave it greater elasticity, making it easier to ply and penetrate in the course of being worked, hence the visibly greater number of folds and creases in the skeins of plaster themselves, and the in crease in the number and audacity of the sweeps of material. The working proceeds intuitively: lumps of wet plaster are placed in a directional “line” and pushed or pulled with the whole hand and fingers until they are joined to form a continuous movement. She does the same with her walls, working them by hand as well. However, the lathing and the base coats in her large walls were done by professionals who were often reluctant to leave them in the relatively rough condition Hurlbut requires for her purposes.

Both columns owe a great deal to her wall done for the London Regional Art Gallery in London, Ontario in the summer of 1984, but the grey column at Mercer Union in Toronto owed more to her studio piece, which marked Hurlbut’s first breach past the architectural plane of the wall, the focal point of her work up to that time. Significant as the rupture is, Hurlbut’s new sculptural language still retains its architectural associations in spite of the distance both columns stand from the walls. In the studio piece, the column is firmly attached to its pedestal which stands on the floor; above, it “supports” a heavy beam just fitting in underneath.

At the same time, a wing of plaster flies upward in front of it, extending the diagonal movement established below from the left side to the right, from bottom to top, concretely affirming the connection of floor to ceiling, and the relation ship of sculptural form to architectural space.

So too is the grey column; at Mercer there was just enough room to move behind it comfortably, but not nearly enough to get a long view of the discrete object in the round. But this time, the solidly modelled substantial form asserted its mass with dynamic thrusts of sheathing. twisting, interlocking ropes of plaster, and the lateral lighting on the greyness, which absorbed and softened the light, provided it with a greater range of tonal qualities between highlights and virtual blackness, greatly increasing the sense of depth and volume. Yet as insistent as it is as a sculptural form reaching beyond itself into the space of the gallery, and much as it implied movement, the column was kept anchored to the floor and ceiling, walls and windows, of the architectural envelope itself, to become part of the rhythmic punctuation they provide. As the room and Its components become more important, the sculptural mass becomes more itself; less grand and more dignified, without loss of integrity, strength. or presence. Clearly, Hurlbut starts out and depends upon the constraints (and advantages) of architectural space, and ends at a point where her work has assimilated into them completely.

She began working in plaster in 1976 when she embedded some ironstone plates into a wall in an attempt to understand the Nubian practice of enshrining a plaque by the front door of a dwelling. Disappointed and frustrated by her inability to leave some personal trace on her work – made by carving out a recess and inserting something ready-made onto a layer of plaster – she destroyed the last plate leaving behind some fragments stuck to the area she had hoped to penetrate by some act of will. Before this, however, she had worked with plaster molding she made from a template of her own design; these she placed on walls at eye level. She did a set of circular moldings like those around chandeliers and placed them on the floor. She then learned that restructuring rooms and decontextualizing rooms were remote intellectual exercises that distanced her (and viewers) from her experience, particularly the experience of physical involvement. Ultimately she was looking for a way of involving herself in her work that would express as directly and as exclusively as possible, her control over her materials and the ideas they generated.

She made her first wall in 1977 (20′ X 10′), applied to an existing wall in her London studio. still in place. Looking at it now, its warm, buttery smoothness stretches across the distance plainly, without ornamentation or moldings. It bears the marks of her hands as it was borne down up on and pressed into while displacing, spreading and joining the lumps of plaster into a tactile whole. It was covered with a scum coat which flattened it further, rounding out the hard tips and edges that would inevitably have been exposed in the course of drying out, but it gives the work a mellow sheen which catches the sunlight from a nearby window, trapping reflections from the street outside and producing suggestive shadows. She made a second wall in 1980. this time with a free-standing wooden siphon (13′ X 10′ X 6″), and an elaborate molding on top which did not engage the ceiling. Its texture was far more relief-like and exposed with protuberances and large finger-ridged areas. The upper portion seemed less actively modeled than the lower, but a close-up look reveals an accumulation of small details, imperceptible from far. The lower portion takes on larger forms and the gradients of protrusions increase, making this part seem like a topographical model of a landscape seen from above, an illusion also served up by the work’s indeterminate status as a free standing object. It was worked upon both sides which, when individually considered, are each whole and interesting, but together they have no relation to one another. It seems compromised in terms of its pictorial qualities, and anomalous as an architectural form. She had also done a blue wall which few people have seen, and while this was done on an existing wall, the radiant colour dematerialized the form and so over whelmed the space that all became illusion. It seemed that the pleasure in the substantial had vanished from the work as well. Nevertheless, it remains a memorable thing.

Hurlbut’s struggle with illusionism in her work is intimately tied to her notions of an ideal reality, deeply and personally felt. The early walls and moldings up to this point still kept her at arm’s length from her aspirations; what can be construed as a highly animated form of formalism, or even expressionism, is hardly the point. Her interest in architecture as a given condition in her work is related to her concerns in daily life; in order to convey the necessities and rightness of functioning structures in the world (walls, rooms. buildings) her work had to participate in the same qualities, that is, it had to be related to them, and exist in the same global space in a non-confrontational, non-hierarchical manner.

However, illusion persisted. In a group show with Ron Martin, Becky Singleton, and John Massey at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1981, Hurlbut took on a wall measuring over 17 feet high by 60 feet long, a Herculean labour she eventually reduced to 13 feet by 30 feet, only a bit more extensive in both directions than she had ever done before. She constructed a foundation for her own wall which was fixed to the real wall of the gallery, and terminated it with a rather large molding she had had fabricated. The surface itself was far more lively than any thing else she had done before, with hand-fit bumps and eruptions randomly organized, long curving, heeled-in declivities, and an overall mobility that was successful even in the cavernous space. The carpeted setting, however, aestheticized the work, placing it at a distance from previous work in studios which, though also large, felt intimate and familiar. In the gallery, the lighting was fixed and gave it a picturesque look; away from the vagaries of natural lighting, it destroyed the sense that it could be lived with harmoniously, changing and various. The moldings, too, had the effect of framing, announcing the reasonableness of extraneous referencing before experiencing the work.

Hurlbut managed to shake illusionism from her next two walls: the first (19′ x 15′) at the Kunstler aus Canada: Raume und Installation exhibition in Stuttgart. Germany in 1983, and the other, a work in her Toronto studio (22′ X 14′) in the spring of 1984. In the first, which was situated under a sky-light, she worked on a scaffold and material, shaped into balls of plaster, was thrown up for her to catch. For the first time in her works marks of her returning gestures are recognizable, hitherto resisted, perhaps unconsciously. Toward the end of her work, she imprinted a series of long, downward drags in the plaster, sometimes terminating in small ridges, sometimes in a pendulous lump. The overhead light emphasized the gravitational flow moving down the channels of drag, and the shadows below the rough lumps and crags seemed to cup them as if they had been falling. In fact, while the whole work asserts itself solidly, the forms, particularly the large ones, seem suspended.

A similar response to gravity exists in her studio wall, but this time an upward movement appears, generated by pushing the plaster up ward between the joists of the ceiling from a lower point on the wall. The built-up forms are more expansive and thick, probably involving several lumps of plaster at once, manipulated into curving lengths. In the same way that the plaster seeps onto the ceiling, tentative toe-like projections touch the floor. The whole wall is fluidly adrift (when the light plays on it) in broad gestures from top to bottom, and right to left.

The London wall of the summer of 1984 (50′ x 10′) builds on her earlier achievements and in the two and a half months it took to make a radically new and consciously intended form emerged – the result of a clear knowledge of the tectonic properties of the wall, and a developing sense of her power to relate them according to her inclinations. The total effect is that of a relatively calm, rhythmic build-up of incomplete, detached fragments to a complicated orchestration of rapidly moving, interlocking forms that fill the space they occupy to bursting. The work exposes the stages of her progress like chapters in a book. She changed her way of working by moving in longitudinal sections, from top to bottom, and the push/pull of her modelling shows it. Omnivorously, the plaster eats into the ceiling and floor, the thick material obliterating the junctures and corners at times; she joined the terminus of her wall to the window wall with ropes of plaster which swing across the corner and over a water-pipe. To return to the beginning of the piece is like watching something come to life. The forms seem to be writhing under the surface, unable to emerge, isolated and amorphous. Accumulating mass, the plaster takes on increasingly large forms which unite and extend the full length of the wall. Tension between diagonals is set up and finally a huge fan-like arrangement of interlocking coils take possession of the last portion of the wall, issuing from a short trunk near the floor. The projections extend outward a foot or more but near the end they start at a higher point on the surface. Light pouring in from the side gave the work additional brilliance subduing gradually as it traveled down the room.

There seemed to be only two choices left to the artist – to devour, and so reject the architectural structure she depended on – or to leave it behind. It has always been her way to push at an idea to see how far it will go. The really surprising thing about Hurlbut is that she always manages to discover a third option, something completely original and provocative, like the columns.