As a Western-informed art viewer, 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 art objects made from such felt. When asked how she positioned her work in relation to Beuys, she replied she was not interested in myth-making—the foundation 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 First Nations’ traditions, personal history and very real experience.
With this in mind, and with respect to Beuys, an artist who shook up the art world in his time, I can’t help but draw comparisons and see Hupfield’s work as a welcome transgression. Beuys often wrapped objects with felt (along with layers of social political meaning that are the subject of another discussion) while Hupfield meticulously reconstructs objects using felt, giving them 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 conscious or not, she re-defines what we might think of when we refer to The felt suit with her Snowmobile Suit (2012) and her Jingle Spiral (2015) that is given life in her performance, The One Who Keeps on Giving.
Maria Hupfield asserts herself against the weight of Western tradition by claiming industrial felt for herself. She is imbuing this heavily coded material with new meanings and contributing to changing perceptions about what is and who drives the grand narrative that is art history.
You can see many of Maria Hupfield’s felt objects in her exhibition The One Who Keeps on Giving currently at the Power Plant: Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto through May 14, 2017.