Justine Hill at Denny Gallery
By: Elizabeth Buhe
June/July Issue Art in America
For the eight paintings on view in “Freestanding,” Justine Hill tempered the sense of levity conveyed by her scribbly mark-making, cartoony motifs, and cheerful colors (periwinkle blues, apricot oranges, royal purples) with a measured consideration of form and composition. Tensions between foreground and background animate the paintings, which continue a style of work she began pursuing in 2015. Each painting is a configuration of multiple canvases, most of which are mounted on pieces of wood cut into biomorphic or angular shapes and pushed out toward the viewer by poplar armatures. The patterns and abstract figures on the canvases are rendered largely in acrylic or pastel, though some areas are built up in crayon, colored pencil, or marker.
In Cyclops Set (2017), an unstretched rectangular canvas tacked directly to the wall and densely patterned with rows of short peachy pink diagonals serves as the background for a shaped panel portraying a flat creature equal parts William Baziotes (from whom it is quoted) and Where the Wild Things Are. In the much larger Backdrop 3 (2018), a similar hatched pattern is shuttled forward, away from the wall, painted as it is across three cutout pieces. The pattern thus inhabits the same plane as the other motifs assembled in the work, whose various shaped components sometimes fit together jigsawlike and sometimes abut one another more awkwardly, with several inches of space between their varying contours. Cyclops Set and Backdrop 3 attest to Hill’s developing concern with the perceptual field of painting—as in, not just what occurs on a canvas but also what takes place in the space around it.
To create her works, Hill collages hand-drawn or digitally crafted imagery to make preparatory sketches that she then scales up, playing with issues of layering and depth along the way. She usually gives each discrete form its own support, but in certain instances she renders two forms on the same shaped canvas. In Bookend 4 (2018), for example, a chunky figure seven in brown-speckled yellow overlaps a serrated purple form in a strictly illusionistic manner. These moments where Hill deviates from her primary structural principle of keeping different shapes separate suggest a compelling direction for future work.
Hill exhibits an easy-seeming confidence, both in her exuberant facture and in her engagement with art history. Her work evokes that of Pierre Bonnard, Elizabeth Murray, Frank Stella, Pablo Picasso, Brice Marden, and various other predecessors, but manages to be wholly its own thing. Its surface patterning and formal maneuvering put Hill on par with a number of artists currently represented in the Museum of Art and Design’s “Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro,” which examines the feminist pioneer’s legacy and presents a history of craft, decoration, and abstraction in which Hill’s eccentric, high-spirited works certainly belong.