Magali Hébert-Huot, Untitled (Swinging Bundle Crystal), 2017. Hydrocal, borax, rope, and 3D-printed hardware, 6 x 19 x 7 in. Photo: Patrick Harkin, Courtesy Hamiltonian Gallery

Magali Hébert-Huot

Washington, DC

Hamiltonian Gallery

Isolation and estrangement, tinged with a dark humor, haunt a long, narrow gallery where sculptures lie about like remnants of a forgotten journey or stage props awaiting human agents. Magali Hébert-Huot has cloaked them in white for the most part, pops of acid green and pink disrupting the palette of oblivion and challenging gender conventions. Though the precise function of these works is obscure, they beg for meaning. The exhibition title, “Les Grandes Étendues,” offers a clue: it refers to the immense wilderness encountered by early French explorers and settlers in the land that became known as Canada.

Scanning the space front to back, a coded, revisionist narrative unfolds, complete with a logbook done in collaboration with artist Tommy Bobo. Seemingly random arrangements distill into mini-vignettes that conjure the existential tragicomedy of a desolate, snow-covered panorama. Unexpected facelifts distort familiar objects such as a pile of wood, a bundle of sticks, and hunting trophies. Nature and artifice collide, as found wood partners with manufactured materials, including MDF, OSB, and plywood, shaped by 3D printing.

A horse’s head swept up in a current of ice floes sets the tone. Made from Hydrocal, MDF, and expanding foam, the tableau becomes a stand-in for the madness that lies ahead, with larger white elements propped on a diagonal by pink sticks. Next, a couple of woodpiles (white again with an occasional green branch) hug the walls and suggest a threshold between outside and inside. Their solidity and bark-like texture are a tease, however, an illusion conjured from hollow, Hydrocal casts. As in Hébert-Huot’s previous works, sculptural transformation rewrites original material identity.

Dangling bundles, tree stumps, and hunting trophies populate the space beyond, their presence exaggerated by cast shadows. Three Swinging Bundles—colored white and pink, yellow and pink, and pale, sparkly pink— bring to mind dynamite sticks, giant French fries, and mangled limbs; they hang from securing ropes that bear an eerie resemblance to nooses. A superimposed geometry turns the stumps, which otherwise might read as chopping blocks, into hexagonal stools mysteriously sprouting branches. Added flocking creates a female inversion of sorts, rendering them at once sensual and synthetic. The trophies are bizarre mash-ups of coats of arms and medallions. At their centers, “taxidermy” limbs and furniture legs made of pine and Baltic birch plywood project from pink rings.

At the far end of the gallery, an inverted wooden model of a house/coffin hybrid resting on a stick covered in pink flocking acts as a fitting summary of the imagined expedition. But it is the logbook—covered in hot pink, its title “Journal Sauvage” inscribed with black magic marker—that gets us inside the explorer’s head and brings a fictional cabin to life. On facing pages, typed French excerpts from Les voyages de Samuel de Champlain au Canada de 1603 à 1618, edited by Hébert-Huot, counterpoint handwritten English notes and sketches of two anonymous, presumably contemporary explorers conceived by Bobo. The craziness, repetition, and desperation of daily life are palpable, as well as the wild sense of release and moments of joy.

“Les Grandes Étendues” offers a bold questioning of reality, illusion, artifice, language, and gender. In Hébert-Huot’s hands, typically masculine activities of chopping and hunting cleverly become DIY hardware projects gone awry. A journal becomes a storyboard for emotionally charged mises-en-scène frozen in time. A vision quest becomes a sophomoric series of drunken antics and necessary chores. The desire to discover something new, outside of the self, characteristic of early expeditions, devolves into de-romanticized inner journeys and uh-oh realizations. At its core, Hébert-Huot’s work exposes rifts in conventional thinking, establishing an in-between zone of edgy nuance. Before we know it, it slyly turns the tables on us, as viewers, and prompts us to ask: What am I doing, and why?