Maria Hupfield

One of Montreal’s epicentres of private art galleries and artistrun centres, the Belgo Building, is a quiet and contemplative site on a weekday afternoon. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the spaces have cycled through mandatory closures, all engaged in a choreography of uncertainty. On the first warm Friday in May, with vaccination in the province accelerating and the promise of a “return to normal” in the air, the building was especially dormant. Coming off the hazy street, I was eager to find Maria Hupfield’s exhibition “Storywork” at the Galerie Hugues Charbonneau. A variation on her first US solo show, organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, whose travel to other venues was curtailed by the pandemic, the Montreal presentation granted locals a glimpse into her expanded and electrifying practice. Focusing on a nine-year period between 2010 and 2019 when the artist lived in Brooklyn, New York, it is also a testament to an already impressive career.

Entering “Storywork,” an audience discovers the interdisciplinary artist whose movement-based performances tell numerous stories grounded in archival, socio-political, artistic and spiritual narratives. Through a bright colour palette, careful consideration for materiality and sculptural construction, a keen sense of world building, and an aptitude for decoding and recoding art historical paradigms, Hupfield, who is Anishinaabek of Wasauksing First Nation, moves comfortably across media with agility and aplomb. Embodied performative actions are not merely aesthetic devices for the artist but a modus operandi that imbues each work with a particular form of agency, intentionality and care. Transforming everyday objects into new assemblages, and then employing these not as simple ready-mades for contemplation but as useful, processual or ritualized extensions of herself, Hupfield gives life and vitality to the often dry, obtuse minimalism of contemporary conceptual art.

Maria Hupfield, 1 of 1 NYC, 2019, industrial felt and thread. Photo: Jean-Michael Seminaro. Courtesy Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, Montreal.

The first works on view in the exhibition, 1 of 1 NYC, 2019, are beautifully intricate, hand-sewn felt objects: two umbrellas, sunglasses, headphones, a disposable coffee cup, a glass bottle, and a small travel case. This grouping, displayed on a painted fluorescent yellow tabletop, announces the overarching intentions behind “Storywork”: this includes centring the act of sharing stories as both work and methodology, an embodied process that is above all experiential, learned and transmitted by feeling, thinking and doing in practice. In 1 of 1 NYC, each object evokes a storyline, with the artist’s attention to fine details and sense of relief, craft and texture lifting the items out of their inanimate state. In a previous group exhibition at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery in 2019, these same elements were placed in relation to objects collected by Nelson Molina, a New York City Department of Sanitation worker who found, amassed and repaired discarded objects along his routes. Removed from this previous, narratively rich context, and here presented in a white-walled gallery setting, Hupfield’s felt foundlings continue to speak, extending her body, her voice and her presence into the space.

Across the room, another felt work, Untitled (After Robert Morris), 2018, draws attention to Hupfield’s use of iconic, minimalist, postwar art landscapes and materials. Created on the occasion of the American sculptor Robert Morris’s death in 2018, the piece references his malleable felt works from the 1960s. Minimalist and land artists like Morris made material and conceptual choices that occluded Indigenous knowledge(s), land claims and histories. Two other works on view, Hupfield’s Golden Dollar (Sacagawea), 2019, a felt head covering with chainmail-like dollars, and Backward Double Jingle Spiral Boots, 2012, felt boots adorned with metal jingles, expand the canon, deterritorializing Western art history by reintroducing bodies, storylines and traditions that have been appropriated and exploited. They also implicate the German artist Joseph Beuys, whose felt suits, animal fat sculptures and use of a coyote in a performance were allegedly inspired by a plane crash in Crimea, where he was rescued by Tartar tribesmen and wrapped with insulating fat and felt to avoid hypothermia.

Throughout Hupfield’s oeuvre, neon colours cover the geometric structures, lines and plinths that house and support her handiwork. In “Storywork,” the highlights of safety yellow break from museological practices, which often visually categorize Indigenous artists and cultures by painting galleries in dark and ochre hues; a practice that denotes primitivist and colonial notions of “earthiness.” In Hupfield’s installation, the bright stripes and accents produce an architecture of warnings, an indicator that the space is constantly in construction, at risk of being rethought and reformulated by the artist herself. Two stuffed vinyl pieces, Guts + Fringe, 2011, and Silver Tongue Taste of Progress, 2018, both hang in the centre of the gallery on wooden sculpture racks with wheels. One blood red and the other silver, they resemble hanging tripe with floppy moose antlers and ribbon sashes. Another pairing, consisting of boxing gloves with golden bells sewn onto the knuckles in Double Punch, 2011, and a speaker stand with plastic wrapped antlers and a felt bag in All Our Relations in 4 Directions, 2019, gestures towards the dynamic sonic aspects of Hupfield’s practice. These objects are meant to be worn, wrapped around a performer’s body and played with, evoking a rich sensorial universe.

Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, which included Hupfield’s shortened exhibition tour as well as her inability to travel to Montreal to activate the pieces in “Storywork,” the artist’s material archive continues to shine. While only a quarter of the original 40 works from the Heard Museum are presented in this iteration at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, there is still much to discover of Hupfield’s impressive nine-year period in Brooklyn. The trove of densely layered ideas, objects and performances on view in “Storywork” are but a sliver of Hupfield’s overall storytelling abilities, and her embodied, materially driven approach to making and exhibiting is both exciting and inspiring. ❚

“Storywork” was exhibited at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau, Montreal, from April 21 to May 29, 2021.

Didier Morelli is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois). His dissertation focuses on the relationship between the built environment and the kinesthetic nature of performing bodies. His work has been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Esse, Performa Magazine, and TDR: The Drama Review.