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Art for Breakfast: The Chemistry of Art and Language

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Sarah Hulsey is a local printmaker and linguist whose work is featured in the two-person show Schemata at the Maud Morgan Arts Center’s Chandler Gallery. The show features Rhonda Smith’s paintings and Hulsey’s print installation “Linguistic Elements,” uniting the artists’ works through the concept of “mapping as metaphor.” For Hulsey, mapping is employed as a means to examine the structure of language through graphic symbols that are arranged to resemble molecular diagrams.

Hulsey’s approach is methodical, rooted in her own disciplinary ties. Individual works consist of carved circular woodcuts that are magnetically mounted to the wall in “syllable clusters,” composed of symbols representing English consonants and vowels. Thin black lines connect these groupings that are used to represent basic units of speech, or phonemes. She shifts the focus from the mapping of the physical composition of elements, to the mapping of the words’ syllables.

Sarah Hulsey, letterpress, 9″ x 6″ (closed); 18″ x 12″ (open), 2016.

Sarah Hulsey, letterpress, 9″ x 6″ (closed); 18″ x 12″ (open), 2016.

Hulsey’s guide “On the Diagraming of English Words, After John Dalton” was adapted from John Dalton’s diagrams of molecules in his New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), which serves as inspiration and the basis of her project. Dalton assigned each atom a symbol, illustrated within a circle. Hulsey appropriates Dalton’s atomic symbols, reassigning them new linguistic meaning. Her guide outlines a system in which English consonants are represented by Dalton’s atomic symbols, and vowels are represented by their International Phonetic Alphabet symbols.

Sarah Hulsey, "Excerpts from A New System of Chemical Philosophy" and "On the Diagramming of English Words" (pedestals: left to right); Oxygen, Zinc (wall: top to bottom), installation view, Schemata, Chandler Gallery, Maud Morgan Art Center, 2016.

Sarah Hulsey, "Excerpts from A New System of Chemical Philosophy" and "On the Diagramming of English Words" (pedestals: left to right); Oxygen, Zinc (wall: top to bottom), installation view, Schemata, Chandler Gallery, Maud Morgan Art Center, 2016.

Viewers are invited to use her guide to read the works arranged on the walls. Her key and excerpts from its source (Dalton’s text) sit atop pedestals. Their placement at once asks the viewer to understand them as artworks in their own right, while also making them seem an inaccessible relic more than a useful tool to activate viewer engagement. Still - the premise of the installation is engaging in its play with linguistics through the thematic starting point of chemistry. The physicality of her letterpress guide and the elements mounted on the wall give form to the structure of language that represents matter.

Visually, Hulsey’s installation is defined by high contrast: black and white compositions, and the precision of her graphic works alongside Rhonda’s thick, gestural paintings. “Linguistic Elements” is striking in its graphic simplicity and conceptually appealing. The magnets that hold each piece in place further emphasize patterns and flexibility; each symbol is a moveable unit that takes on new meaning relative to the other parts with which it is linked. And while pliable, language, like art and matter, adheres to general rules.

Her mapping invites the viewer to imagine possibilities beyond the elements that she has selected, as well as to reflect on mapping itself as a process of understanding the significance of individual units and composites. By extension, Hulsey’s installation positions art and texts as the building blocks that shape our understanding of the world and our experience in it.

"Schemata: Sarah Hulsey and Rhonda Smith, " installation view, Chandler Gallery, Maud Morgan Art Center, 2016.

"Schemata: Sarah Hulsey and Rhonda Smith, " installation view, Chandler Gallery, Maud Morgan Art Center, 2016.

If you’d like to see more of Hulsey’s work, visit her show Diagraphia at Gallery 263, March 24-April 16, with an opening reception on March 25 from 6-8pm and an artist's talk on April 9 at 3pm.

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About Author

Lisa Crossman is an art historian and the Koch Curatorial Fellow at the Fitchburg Art Museum. She holds a PhD from Tulane University, specializing in the modern and contemporary art history of Latin America. She comes to the Big Red & Shiny team with a range of professional experiences, including her recent work with the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University.

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