As a viewer informed by Western art history, it is hard not to think of Joseph Beuys when presented with grey industrial felt in an art gallery, but Maria Hupfield puts a crack in that canon with her objects made from such felt. When asked how she thought of her work in relation to Beuys, she replied she was not interested in myth-making—a basis of the post-war German artist’s practice—and that her experience is so different from his that it’s hard to compare. This is true. As a woman, as an Anishnaabe artist growing up in rural Canada, her work draws on Indigenous traditions, personal history and very real experience.
The surrounding white walls give me cause for some comparison. Beuys often wrapped objects with felt (along with layers of social and political meaning that challenged viewers in his own time) while Hupfield uses felt to meticulously reconstruct objects, giving them a formal consistency. From a tape cassette to a canoe, the neutral grey material has the effect of equalizing a wide range of objects, at once erasing their specificity and highlighting their distinction as personal and cultural symbols. And, whether with intent or not, Hupfiled brings new meaning to The felt suit with her Snowmobile Suit and Jingle Spiral.
Hupfield’s felt works are a welcome transgression to a Western tradition. She claims this heavily-coded material for herself, challenging us to consider what is and who drives the grand narrative that is art history.