Focus on the Collection: Spring Hurlbut

Spring Hurlbut, A Fine Line: Arnaud #4 (A Fine Line series), 2014

Spring Hurlbut, A Fine Line: Arnaud #4 (A Fine Line series), 2014, inkjet print, 69.2 x 69.2 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC


Spring Hurlbut pays homage to Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich in the way she addresses the spiritual via geometrical forms, such as a circle, square or cross. Employing an unexpected technique, she spreads thin layers of human or animal ash across a black surface, then photographs the resulting composition.

In After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution, Nutmeg #2, Hurlbut uses Malevich’s famous cross, notable in its asymmetry, but reverses the order of the colours to create a white form on a black surface. Looking a bit like a comet, the shape seems to disappear little by little into the cosmos. This effect, evident in several works created by the artist using ashes, evokes the dissolution of solid forms and the ephemeral nature of life.

A Fine Line: Arnaud #4 is an homage to her husband, Arnaud Maggs (1926−2012), who also admired Suprematist art. An artist himself, Maggs explored the circle shape in his own portrait work by capturing poses with his camera following a 360-degree trajectory. He then reorganized the images into a grid in order to present multiple perspectives. Using Maggs’ ashes, Hurlbut references his practice in a circular form striped with horizontal lines. This arrangement, which resembles the Moon, is a reflection on feelings of loss and grief, while also evoking images common to astronomy.


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Canadian artist Spring Hurlbut studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Her art practice encompasses sculpture, installation, photography and video. Her unique approach involves a dialogue between sculpture and architecture, starting with research into materials and forms of expression appropriate to a given context.

In 2005, when given her father’s ashes by her mother, she began to explore how she could use them expressively. This led to a series of photographs called Deuil I, followed by other series and video works on the same theme, which Hurlbut views as posthumous portraits reflecting the body’s transformation after death.

Spring Hurlbut, After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution, Nutmeg #2 (After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution series), 2014

Spring Hurlbut, After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution, Nutmeg #2 (After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution series), 2014, inkjet print, 69.3 x 69.1 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC 


In the Artist’s Own Words


On mortality *

The investigation of mortality . . . It seems exquisitely special to me, that question of what happens on the other side. People from all walks of life have asked me to work with their loved ones. They allowed me that permission. And what a great and remarkable privilege that is.

I think of my posthumous subjects as collaborators, they are the last particles of what once was an individual who lived on the earth and flourished on some levels. I certainly don’t think of my work as macabre; I think about it more as a celebration of life.


On the series After Malevich, The Moment of Dissolution

My series After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution is based on Kazimir Malevich's paintings and drawings. Not unlike Malevich, I start with a single geometrical form. A portion of this geometrical composition gradually fades into the background. This unexpected erasure causes a disruption within the iconic image.

The image, After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution, Nutmeg #2, is made up of the cremated remains of a horse. A cross appears to be ascending. The ashes that make up the surface of the cross are seen to be spilling down over the edges into the blackness. My levitating cross aligns itself with Malevich's notions of how he perceived the metaphysical within his geometrical compositions.


On the series A Fine Line *

The series titled A Fine Line includes photographs of my late husband’s ashes, Arnaud Maggs, and it combines both chaos and measurement. I feel that it was perfectly matched to Arnaud’s aesthetic and his concept of the world. I am still working with Arnaud, and we are collaborating. I mean, how incredible is that and how beautiful is that? It gives me a lot of solace and joy.


* From a video produced by the Canada Council for the Arts for the 2018 Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts (Director: Scott Dobson).

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