“Time itself is a circle,” declares an interlocutor in Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1883 work of philosophy-fiction Thus Spoke Zarathustra, offering up an elliptical shorthand for the 19th-century German philosopher’s doctrine of eternal return. Questioning notions of linear progress, Nietzsche hypothesized that the same events recur ad infinitum; the choices that we make and the attitude that we adopt in response to the gravity of that knowledge constitute something like character.
Plato’s Closet at ASHES/ASHES, an exhibition composed of five oil paintings made in 2022 by New York artist Timothy Hull, tempers Nietzsche’s weighty musings on eternal recurrence — as well as his speculative theories on the apex and decline of Greek tragedy — with considerable levity and more than a bit of mischief. The exhibition’s tongue-in-cheek title nods to an eponymous chain of thrift stores (the site of clothing’s eternal return); it also alludes to the queer discourse around the classical Greek philosopher Plato — who is often viewed as apotheosizing same-sex eroticism in his early writings before censuring it in later works — and the homosexuality believed to be prevalent in ancient Greek culture at large. Upon entering Plato’s Closet, gallery-goers encounter a Xeroxed handout featuring three heavily annotated, faux-academic texts that respectively expound upon the paucity of closets in the archaeological record, present a new metaphysical reading of the Athenian grave-closet as a psychic space, and shed light on a ritual game that used “Trojan brooms.” Oscillating between almost plausible and gratingly ham-fisted in its language, this degraded copy pokes at the deluge of classics scholarship that floods academia as it gestures to the opportunities for creative play and repurposing that looking backward can pose.
Flattening past and present with a punchy, graphic aesthetic, the paintings on view cast iconographic shards of antiquity as Pop art or vector graphics, highlighting the enduring presence of the past in the form of emptied-out symbols to which any number of meanings can be attached, as seen in the interpretive range of classics scholarship. Overlapping one another in space, as if affixed to the same closet pinboard, are depictions of urns, comedy and tragedy masks, glyphs, and images culled from ancient ceramic fragments: Oedipus contemplating an absent sphinx, an admiring close-up of Dionysus, Orpheus strumming his lyre, and two men carrying a third who bears a pronounced erection. These discrete icons are interspersed with imagery lifted from Hull’s previous paintings, such as ancient Greek letters and symbols repeated to the point of abstraction or decoration (copies of copies); monochromes composed of neat, abutting swaths of tiny vertical and horizontal strokes, rendered with pointillist precision (a torturous process, one imagines, for an oil painter waiting for paint to dry); and images of watches from the 1980s — which call attention to and build upon the various strata of time embedded in Hull’s work, and perhaps any art-making endeavor.
One of the works on view, “The Birth of Tragedy” (2022), lacks the collage-style aesthetic of its counterparts. The relatively stark, balanced painting takes its title from Nietzsche’s rhapsodic book, published when the philosopher was only 27 years old, which declared that Greek tragedy at its best wed the logic, structure, and form associated with the sun god Apollo with the lawlessness and unbridled ecstasy affiliated with the wine god Dionysus and his rowdy cohort (and numerous cult followings). Inspired on the level of composition, Hull looked to Nietzsche’s characterization of the timeless tension between order and disorder to inform the controlled chaos of his off-kilter paintings, whose slightly askew stacked pictures float in fields of subdued monochrome. In “The Birth of Tragedy,” a single, massive, milky Greek tragedy mask floats on a dark ground; its overwhelming whiteness, rendered in diminutive, immaculate strokes, evokes the racialized Whiteness historically projected onto Greek statuary, which contemporary scholars have now determined was originally brightly colored. On either side of the symmetrical painting, rendered in a golden hue, is a floating circle, or the Greek letter “O,” also known as Omicron: perhaps that is instability enough.
Timothy Hull: Plato’s Closet continues at ASHES/ASHES (56 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 24. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
Editor’s Note, 4/18/2022, 1:50 pm EST: An earlier version of this article included incorrect dates. This has since been corrected.