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Magali Hébert-Huot’s latest show at Hamiltonian Gallery, an exhibit called Les Grandes Étendues, takes a long view of the artist’s native home. The title refers to the phrase that French settlers used to describe the expansive colonial lands that they encountered in the area known today as Canada. Hunting, logging, and other references to French Canadian wilderness frame the artist’s French Canadian sculpture.
But the U.S. has shaped the show more directly. Hébert-Huot, who has lived in the U.S. for nearly 5 years, was told she had to leave over the winter. The artist was part-way through a two-year fellowship with Hamiltonian Gallery when she got the news: Her adoptive home would not be renewing her visa. The notice she received at Thanksgiving told her she had less than a month to exit the country.
“It’s the current situation,” Hébert-Huot says, referring to the Trump administration’s hardline position on immigration, legal or otherwise. “I’m not the only one it’s happening to.”
So all the sculpture in Les Grandes Étendues—most of it made with spruce, pine, stucco, and expanding foam—is what she could fit into her car and drive the 14 hours from Quebec City to the District.
Hébert-Huot has popped up as a noteworthy new voice in sculpture through recent area exhibitions. Her work was a highlight at the final (e)merge art fair in 2014. She has shown work in two previous shows at Hamiltonian, including a two-artist review last spring. Her sculpture made it into a juried survey at Philadelphia’s esteemed Vox Populi gallery. As a recent graduate of Maryland College Institute of Art, where she received her master’s degree in 2015, Hébert-Huot discovered the fast track quickly.
For a single car-load, Les Grandes Étendues carries a lot of weight. “Untitled (L’Hiver Est Long)” (2018) comprises two stacks of chopped wood pieces—or rather, objects that look like firewood. Most of the logs, which look like they’ve been coated with white paint, are in fact made with hydrocal, a gypsum cement useful for hollow casting. But a few of the split planks, maybe one in 10, are highlighter yellow wax casts. A viewer might think to see the ghostly neon impressions as the exception, but the white logs are just as deceptive.
Hébert-Huot’s faux wood piles fall along an angle to the wall. All her sculptures hug the perimeter: They are either suspended from the ceiling, mounted to the wall, or slung low to the ground. There are hanging bundles of branches, including “Untitled (Swinging Bundle Crystal)” (2018), a cast pink branch that’s partly coated with borax, a mineral, so it looks as if it’s been dipped in a sugary crystal. “Untitled (Fleuve Saint-Laurent, with Jim)” features a series of sculptural provocations that look like tiny tents, meant to evoke the enclosure that a trapper might whip up to keep the howling winds at bay. This piece comprises four of these miniature tarps—white triangular shapes supported by pink branches—plus a ghostly white horse’s head that’s skewered by a bough.
Repetition is key in Hébert-Huot’s work. There are three wall-mounted sculptures that employ plaques from taxidermied trophies; four roped bundles; and two works that feature hexagonal bases, from which she’s attached branches resembling a Christmas tree or an antler. She’s restricted her palette to natural wood, white, and neon pink and yellow. Her works are variations on a few simple themes, but they don’t look rule bound.
The highlight here is “Untitled (Boiler Spruce)” (2018), another floor piece. A long, spiky branch supports an upturned box-like form. The particle-board box, barn-like in shape, looks grainy on its exterior; the inside is lined with stucco. The piece is vaguely threatening, like an over-large trap that’s been assembled incorrectly. Like much of her work, it’s a strong composition that feels like the start of something bigger.
Hébert-Huot’s work would fit nicely alongside the sculpture of D.C.’s own Jeff Spaulding, whose playful plastic sculptures also often hug low to the floor. Or combinations that no one’s thought of yet. But Hébert-Huot has to turn her focus back home. When her year-long work permit expired last September, she got a one-year extension. The follow-up notice she received asking for more information led her to realize that working stateside as an artist would not be easy. “I wasn’t that surprised,” she says, “but it was still a hit in the face.”
At Hamiltonian Gallery to June 23. 1353 U St. NW. Free. (202) 332-1116. hamiltoniangallery.com.