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Re: Making History
by David Spalding


Remembering Gretchen Hupfel, 1963-2002


As whimsical as she was contemplative, Gretchen Hupfel had an acute sense of paradox and a gift for wryly exposing its intricacies in her photography, sculpture and installation.

I first discovered her artistic talent when curating the „digital.imageš exhibition for the Agnes Scott College Dalton Gallery in 1999. We met in her studio, surrounded by the wit and beauty of her works in progress. Hupfel‚s photographs and minimal sculptural dioramas-tiny people in miniature landscapes, a small model plane appearing to fly into the wall-captivated me. So did her artist‚s statement. „The sky is not empty,š she wrote, explaining the unseen presence of the satellite microwaves that she pictured in her photographs. With digital overlays, she visualized that invisible geometry, pictured a plane about to intersect a fine white grid, imagined a network of lines hovering over an otherwise empty highway, found a lone surveyor unknowingly dwarfed by the sound waves in the air above him. Fascinated with disaster, she‚d photographed a whole series of imploding buildings, documenting the surreality in their doom.

Gretchen Hupfel, Spacial Disorientation Pilot Error Induced, black and white photograph, 2000, 12 by 12 inches (courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery).

Hupfel kept looking at the sky. And sometimes she seemed to see the future. A series of photographs that she took at the Atlanta airport documented her unexpectedly prescient observations. She captured images of commercial planes apparently flying into massive buildings a year before the September 11 tragedy. In spring 2001, she exhibited her šHorizon Stabilizerš series at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (then Nexus Contemporary Art Center). About this work she wrote, „∑Airplanes are something like angels. As passengers, we are closer to heaven than we‚ll ever get. This might explain why it‚s particularly devastating when they crash to the ground.š

The sculptural anomalies that Hupfel created were just as uncanny as her photographs. In the 1999 Nexus Biennial, and in a subsequent exhibition at Agnes Scott College, her 3-D dramas in miniature provoked laughter and thought. She giganticized her viewer, offered lessons in physics that made us feel like philosophers or prophets. The artist‚s Scale Problems (1999-2000) compelled our close consideration. She used 3/4-inch tall model railroad figures, overwhelming them with dilemmas propelled by the forces of nature. In each scenario, her characters seemed unaware of their calamity and the impossibility of their future.

Gretchen Hupfel, Mechanics, 2001, pliers, 2 by 1 by 10 inches
(courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery).

Against a backdrop of seamless white paper, one little man stood innocently beneath a huge mass of falling stone, a single spotlight fixed on his peril. Another pint-sized character sat perched atop the rim of suspended gimbals. (A relative of the gyroscope, gimbals are a contrivance of metal rings and pivots known to keep compasses and cocktails horizontal at sea.) As he sat blithely at the brink of his existence, we were left to predict his outcome-would he manage to hang on and spin or plunge to his death?

It turned out that the sly tension caught in those installations was a window into the increasing sense of vulnerability that accompanied Hupfel‚s mental illness. But the work also mirrored our own fragility, a shared contemporary angst. As her treatment for schizophrenia became the subject of her inquiry and art, she effectively stripped the disorder of its secret shame. Investigating, manipulating and re-envisioning the chemical compounds that her brain was absorbing, she transformed her personal experience with drugs into ironic sculpture. The artist set her handmade models of the molecules of Prozac, caffeine and nicotine on spinning turntables, as if to mock their mind-altering power.

Gretchen Hupfel, from Molecules, 2002, plastic, three by 3 by 5 inches (courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery)

Last summer, Hupfel was selected to participate in ShedSpace, a series of exhibitions in local backyard sheds. Her single work, The Negative Space of My Fist, was cast from the empty area inside the artist‚s tightly clenched hand. The diminutive shape evoked the poignancy of her psychological struggles while her statement explained how the work gave „form to a tenuous grip on reality. I myself have been absent,š she wrote. „I reemerge with this relic that both was the end of my making and is now the beginning of my making again.š

Objects and photographs in last year‚s group exhibition „Out Thereš recalled the artist‚s skill at re-inventing the familiar. Viewers remembered her through the airborne photographs, early Polaroid narratives and a photo-portrait of her wounded thumb titled What It Means to Be Human. That was the Gretchen Hupfel I knew. It was a pair of quiet new sculptures that took me by surprise-two gorgeous hand-sized works that appeared to be cast in resin or carved from a waxy stone. On closer inspection of Time Spent (2002), I discovered that the perfect forms were carved out of blocks made from winding transparent cellophane tape over and over upon itself. Exquisite. Deceptively simple. And smart. Gretchen Hupfel still had me looking twice and thinking deeply about the complex beauty in the simplest paradox. I wonder what she would have amazed us with next.

Gretchen Hupfel was born in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1963, and took her life on December 14, 2002. The artist graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA from Brown University before going on to earn an MFA from the University of Delaware in 1993. Hupfel taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and later at the University of Georgia in Athens. From 1989 to late 2002, her work was shown in over 30 exhibitions in galleries and alternative spaces from New York to Atlanta. Her photographs are in collections including those of the Delaware Art Museum, the High Museum of Art, American Century, Citibank, Phillip Morris and Sprint.

The Marcia Wood Gallery, which represented Hupfel in Atlanta and organized a brief posthumous exhibition at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in January, will present an in-depth exhibition of Hupfel‚s work April 11-May 17, 2003.

CATHY BYRD is Director of the School of Art and Design Gallery at Georgia State University in Atlanta.


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