Timothy Hull: Archaeology and Eros
A few things immediately strike the senses when stepping into Hull’s studio in Warwick, in upstate New York. First is a hint of incense in the air. You then notice a few objects placed about—a conch shell, oyster shells, and amphora-shaped vases. A portrait of the late philosopher, mystic, and spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff is on the desk. Then gaze at the several canvases on the wall painted with imagery of artifacts, masks, and figures in graphic and sketchbook-style representation. A thread imbued with solemnity, humor, eroticism, and enigma ties everything together.
Reflecting on the journey to reach Hull’s restored 19th-century barn studio, through back roads, small towns, and miles of rambling trees, you realize you’ve entered a special place. Not the typical artist’s studio retreat; there’s something else to it. The imagery, the scents—even the carefully kept grounds surrounding his home—cause one to think they’ve entered a sanctum. Perhaps it is a sanctum similar to what is alluded to by Hull’s references to ancient deities like the Greek god Dionysius, the central god in the ancient Dionysian Mysteries.
Hull has been working with this subject matter for nearly two decades now. Ancient ruins, artifacts, statues, and sketchbook images from his travels have consistently populated his paintings, drawings, and installations. His work evokes a sense of being present in the ancient polis, with its social structure, dwellings, imagery, icons, and even graffiti etched into its walls. Yet, in addition to reflecting on the past, these historical elements can be viewed through a lens of personal experience; an existential archeology going beyond allusions to ancient culture or artifacts. Not to be conflated with nostalgia, Hull’s investigations don’t just remain in the past, they point to analogies of living today through hints of mystery, catharsis, and eroticism.
Hull’s tendency to place ancient subject matter into a contemporary context—or vice versa—can be seen early in his oeuvre. In an installation from the show “Discovering the Disenchanted Byzantines” at Fitzroy Gallery (2013), amalgamations of hieroglyphic shapes, body parts, and amphora vases are combined with 80’s Swatch watch-style graphics. The distinct languages of commercial design and archetypal form conspire to tell a story that may appear quotidian but feels timeless at the same time. Line, shape, color—and the added dimension of time—these components mark not only the passing of ages but become evidence of what life amounts to in the bigger picture. What this picture seems to be telling us is that just as time moves and objects pass on in body and memory, real artifacts are produced through our acts of doing, imagining, and being.
Concerns about time and timeliness are tackled head-on in the sculptural project Accelerated Ruin; a collaboration with Future Expansion Architects. Here, an antediluvian, ziggurat-style architectural form meets entropy via natural materials made from a fusion of hemp and mushroom roots. After being exposed to the weather and urban elements for over a year, the organic panels slowly began to degrade, eventually revealing an internal armature defining the object’s shape.
Such intended states of architectural decomposition bring to mind ideas like 20th-century German architect Albert Speer’s concept of Ruin Value—a design concept intended to make contemporary architecture look aged like the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome; appearing with the same grandiosity as famous, time-worn cultures. In this collaborative pair’s treatment, however, the ruin is turned into a performance, where the nature of impermanence contrasts against the formal heft of architectural form.
Spiritual or ritual themes also creep into Accelerated Ruin, with its formal nod to Mayan step pyramids or ancient Ziggurats with elevated strata, where at the top, shrines once existed. The subject of ritual creates a bridge between the past and the present, with a certain quality approaching the transcendent.
Issues of time, image, and object also appear in Hull’s gallery installations, where he is often seen composing wall illustrations and objects together in the same visual plane. In the work Study of a Myth in Progress (Athens Landscape Drawing), for example, the body of a walking figure from the neck down—drawn directly on the wall—receives a framed drawing of the Athenian Acropolis plateau in place of where their head would be. In another, Study of a Myth in Progress (Roman Forum Drawing), a pair of disembodied blue-colored feet—also painted on the wall—stroll towards a framed illustration of the Roman Forum and a column’s silhouette with a vase placed on top.
A relationship between body and architecture is clearly addressed here. However, the direction Hull goes with it takes it beyond the obvious. The way we generally experience structures, interiors, and facades is as built forms that address the body in some way. They shelter us, enclose us, and produce a sense of scale in relation to our own bodily physicality. In Hull’s universe, however, the architectural landscape becomes a backdrop or theater where events unfold. With illustrations of ancient city landscapes, as well as the disembodied figures to inhabit them, Hull’s theater presents the drama of the polis to us.
The events of this drama are revealed in other works. Take Study of a Myth in Progress (Cavafy’s House and Alexandrian Wall), for example, where Hull pairs an illustration of a Mediterranean dwelling with a work on canvas. The painting is covered with the earlier Swatch-style graphics, yet combined with ancient letters from the Greek or Phoenician alphabets. The letters and lines together draw allusions to ancient graffiti while giving a modern nod to commercial abstraction at the same time.
The name given in the work’s title—referencing the poet C.P. Cavafy—gives us another clue to the stage being set. With his homoerotic imagery and references to living in the ancient world, Cavafy’s poetry presents an important entry point into the psyche of Hull’s world. First-person accounts of life in the ancient polis, like in Cavafy’s In a Famous Greek Colony 200BC, as well as same-sex sexual encounters in his Comes to Rest, allude to a classical landscape with homoerotic overtones. Here, Hull appears to be making parallels between Cavafy’s work and his own.
The graffiti seen earlier continues in the wall installation For Ammonis, Who Died at 29 in 610, where it completely covers the wall surrounding three archways. A shelf is installed in each archway containing three tablet-size paintings. For each shelf, there is one painting covered with the graffiti, another containing letters from ancient alphabets, and a third with drawings appearing to have come from Hull’s own sketchbook.
If the facade reveals the surface of the polis, then the graffitied painting must hint at its underside. Where one expects to encounter such graffiti—in public spaces where private thoughts or desires are displayed publicly—messages can often be satirical, personal, confessional, or even sexual. Yet in For Ammonis, the relationship between private and public appears inverted. The marginal, anonymous zone represented by the graffiti has been brought to the forefront, becoming part of the installation’s formal presentation. Close inspection reveals further detail, such as flying penises strewn about the composition. Paired with Greek letters and the previous references to eroticism in the ancient polis, again, one can’t overlook the same-sex symbolism.
It seems worthwhile pointing out that sexual dichotomies like homosexual and heterosexual didn’t really have a place in ancient Greek and Roman societies. A mature man having a young male partner was considered normal. Hull’s Exited Eromenos Playing the Aulos references this relationship directly, where in ancient Greece, the older male erastes took an active role, while the younger eromenos assumed the passive part.
Hull’s phallic symbolism also reminds us how figures with erect phalluses were common in ancient Greek and Roman culture. A perfect example is the Greek god Priapus, who, sporting a giant phallus, was considered a god of fertility. In Pompeii, erect phalluses were also used as building and street markers. They were also painted on the walls of domestic settings as symbols of prosperity. In ancient times, this symbolism was normal. Hull’s use of erotic symbolism acts as an attempt to destigmatize their public exposure.
Normalizing such exposure finds another meaning in the work Reel Around the Fountain (a clear nod to the eponymous Smiths song), wherein Hull installs a modern urinal inside a small backroom of the gallery. Complete with vases on the floor and a votive candle on top of the urinal, the installation alludes to both the public restroom and a sanctuary.
Through the work’s title, the urinal becomes a fount or well from which a spring emerges. Not a literal fountain, however, this urinal’s fountain is its power as a symbolic equalizer. All who come and stand before the urinal are reduced to the same experience. Since using the urinal involves a degree of self-exposure, it becomes an act of vulnerability. Anyone who has entered a well-worn public restroom to use the public urinal for the first time has had the experience of undergoing something like a rite of initiation, where the veil between the self and the collective drops. Here, the individual self must take a backseat to the unparticular, common self. The experience can solicit either a sense of terror or liberation, invoking states of trauma or catharsis.
Trauma and catharsis are a natural segue into Hull’s more recent work, where the idea of the ancient theater again appears. In the show “Plato’s Closet” at Ashes/Ashes Gallery in 2022, the introduction of ancient Greek theater masks points directly at it. The show was inspired by a dream taking place in an ancient amphitheater, where a group of actors surrounded the artist, and where he beheld a vision of a theater mask with dark eyes and a mouth. After witnessing the performance of a mysterious dance, Hull felt a sense of existential dread, one he describes in the Jungian sense as being contained within our contemporary collective unconscious
Accordingly, one of the purposes of ancient Greek theater was to in fact produce states of catharsis and internal purification for its audience members. By rousing negative emotions like fear, dread, suffering, or rage, the play was meant to relieve the audience’s experience of these feelings and render them into a state of harmony or peace. Perhaps, like in Jung’s analysis, by bringing terror to the surface and confronting it, the unconscious becomes conscious and the individual is able to face their trauma directly.
Rites of purification also played an essential role in the ancient mystery rites, where undergoing the experience of catharsis was requisite before advancing towards the later stage of epopteia, or epiphany. Considering Hull’s reference to the Greek god Dionysius in An Omicron Amongst Dionysian Cult Objects, for example, we might reflect on ancient rites like those of the Dionysian mysteries and ponder whether such purifications are being alluded to here as well.
Taken as a whole, the physical and conceptual strata in Hull’s work prove to be deep and rich. Attempting to summarize the spectrum of his work with a few observations doesn’t do it justice; one must keep digging. Whereas with archeology, hints at excavating ancient cultures and artifacts are present, in Hull’s work, there is a parallel archeology uncovering both basic and higher truths. These truths start with the personal, continue with the social, and then, through excavating hidden meanings, reach the universal.
This movement from personal to universal is reminiscent of a passage in Plato’s Symposium. In the dialogue, Plato’s Socrates explains how the prophet Diotima taught him “the philosophy of love” (i.e., eros) via the subject of beauty. Diotima tells Socrates that, in the beginning, love drives individuals to seek earthly beauty through the physical form of particular bodies. Next, the individual seeks beauty in all bodies. The individual then moves to see the beauty in all souls. Following this comes the beauty of ethics and the beauty of knowledge. Finally, there is the universal beauty of beauty itself. As the lover grows in wisdom, the beauty sought becomes more spiritual and philosophical—aspiring towards the highest good.
Uncovering truths and seeking experience through personal, social, and beauty are matters of archeology and eros. In Hull’s work, these are performed in the theater of the polis, which is not just a stage where events happened, but a place where experiences themselves are preserved as artifacts. This artifact is not just physical, but the shadow of a memory, like an image preserved as markings on a wall.
Timothy Hull (b. 1979; New York, NY) lives and works in Warwick, NY. He received an MFA from Parsons School of Design (New York, NY) and a BA from New York University (New York, NY). He has had solo exhibitions at: Kristen Lorello Gallery (New York, NY); Eduardo Secci (Florence, Italy); Jeff Bailey Gallery (Hudson, NY); ASHES/ASHES (Los Angeles, CA); Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery (New York, NY); and Fitzroy Gallery (New York, NY). His work has been included in group exhibitions at: ASHES/ASHES (New York, NY); Invisible Exports (New York, NY); Bureau (New York, NY); Mitchell-Innes and Nash (New York, NY); and Tate Modern (London, United Kingdom). His work has been featured and reviewed in Hyperallergic, The New York Times, Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, Interview Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Images courtesy the artist, and the galleries where indicated.