Hannah Greely in Athens, Greece

by Stephanie Bailey, May 2011

Hannah Greely’s sculptures are both endearing and unnerving, coupling equal measures of jovial creativity with an intensely conceptual approach to the constructed nature of reality. The results are captivating meditations on art and life, and how the two interact. Greely’s latest solo show at Bernier/Eliades in Athens, Greece marks a moment of transition in the artist’s career, where an interest in mundane objects has been replaced with an investigation into the very origins of objectification, language and representation. She achieves this through an active engagement with the relationship between conscious and unconscious experience. The central figure in the show is a tall, gray mortar-made man emerging from a canvas blanket that could be a cave, a sheet or anything one might want it to be. Surrounding him are objects that suggest wizardry, alchemy and an overwhelming awareness of man’s potential to command, define or understand nature. Snakes, which Greely describes as representing emotional thought, feature heavily, from a snake propped up against a walking stick, to the snake that disappears into Panorama Roll (2010), a landscape painted on a thick, rolled-up duvet. Like the serpent of time, the snake’s presence evokes a sense of perpetuity that runs between reality and the articulation of experience, as well as the eternal discourse between feeling and thought. During an evening meeting one day before the exhibition opening, Greely contemplates what it’s all about.

SB: You have been known to really take your time on your work, particularly in the case of you bar booth replica, Dual, in the Whitney Biennial 2010. Is that true of your work today?
HG: In the past it’s been that way. I have a tendency to really focus in on one piece that consumes me, really working at it and refining it. The piece in the Whitney Biennial took me four years because I had to wear it in with a layering of history that was both real and fake. Some of the real history was about me and my friends hanging out in the piece actually drinking and doing stuff—gathering real dirt. It took up my whole studio and became part of my life. So once it was out there it was funny; a lot of people just thought I had taken it directly from a bar, it was almost too realistic. The piece was a little unusual because I made the sculpture from the same materials you would find in a bar, but then also changing it up. The payphone was made in aluminum sheet stock so it’s really clunky-looking and clues people in that I did make all of it. This was different to what I had done before, which is take unusual materials and make objects out of them; the transfer of the material kind of changing the meaning of the piece. I think of those objects as being about human culture and how our relationships to objects are like a mirror of ourselves. This exhibition is a little unusual as I’ve been working a lot more and a lot faster and have more work to show for it. I kind of opened up to actually just playing with materials and not linking them so much to everyday objects.

How has your relationship with everyday objects and material evolved for this exhibition?
I was thinking about Claes Oldenberg and how he so brilliantly over-anthropomorphizes objects, making the work almost philosophical; you can project human emotion onto them. When I look at his work I start thinking about existence and human consciousness and that really inspires me. I mean, what is our relationship to our environment and why must we make meaning constantly? It’s like we have an addiction to making meaning. With Loose Thread Copy (2010), I was thinking about how everyone goes out and looks up at the stars and has that really intense experience of seeing a starry sky, and how everyone has their own conscious experience of being in that moment. In that need to share that experience with someone else something happens; where do we get from seeing a starry sky and relating the shape of the starfish to the star that we saw up in the air? These abstractions of experience start to filter all the way down, to these pentagram cartoon wizard stars. How is it when you see a pentagram you think of a starry sky? It looks nothing like it any more! I think what it’s about is our need as humans to find a way to package, commodify and abstract an experience. We do it with both language and objects so that when we present an idea, experience or feeling to someone else they are able to relate because it becomes sort of generalized. They won’t ever be able to experience whatever it was the way that you did; they won’t have that specific moment in time with your consciousness and your perspective, but they’ll have their own. So there is a kind of abstraction that whittles away the extras to reveal the core.

This relates to Plato’s Theory of Forms in that certain ideas or concepts exist as a singular “form” though in reality such ideas are never quite manifested as a singular, identical experience. In this sense, such abstractions—such as love or hate—exist as you describe them: abstract representations of a universal idea experienced and perceived both on an individual and collective level simultaneously.
Yeah, that’s sort of what it’s about for me right now. I’m trying to abstract my perspective and package it in a way that can communicate to someone else and if it does successfully you somehow get that connection. I think language and art is important for that. That’s why the nature theme is prevalent in this show as I’m trying to strip away all the culture that surrounds us and all the meaning that has filtered down and been abstracted. With this show, it was a natural progression that I started to play with, stripping away the evidence of human culture further by going a little bit further back into what made us make objects in the first place. I think it’s important every once and a while to go back and think about how we got here. It also creates a narrative that is open and people can generate their own story. You know I’m thinking a lot about what it is to be a conscious person. When you are presented with an object or an image, you perceive it and you are kind of transformed a little bit by it. You create a secondary image in your mind—a memory that’s like a feeling that all comes together and then when it comes back out, that’s what art is to me. It’s almost as if art is a physical illustration of what it is to be a conscious individual creating stories. I mean, we create multiple stories every day through our memories. But at the same time, being conscious and being in the moment, you create images in your mind that are the most difficult to express. I mean what words do you really have when you see a landscape? To me a two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world is like illustrating the impossibility of communicating your perspective or experience as a conscious human being.

Hannah Greely: Wild Corner
15 April—26 May 2011
Bernier/Eliades Gallery
11 Eptachalkou Street, Athens, Greece