Hannah Ehrlich’s clearing: a fertile exhale at Swan Coach House Gallery, Atlanta

By April 11, 2023
a white-walled, light-filled gallery is filled with sweeping textiles that reach from floor to ceiling, the installations are a charcoal black with white knots and tassles the color of bones
Installation view of clearing: a fertile exhale at Swan Coach House Gallery, curated by Makeda Lewis. All works courtesy of Sandler Hudson Gallery.

Hannah Ehrlich’s exhibition clearing: a fertile exhale is an exploration of solitude’s capacity to yield creativity and self-discovery. In her recent solo exhibition at Swan Coach House Gallery, the artist takes a look at the nuanced and continuous journey of becoming.

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With clearing, Ehrlich and Atlanta-based curator Makeda Lewis offer an exhibition that brings fabric to life. It grows, through mutations, pulsations, and bruising. Each piece seems to have lived and experienced its own personal evolution to become what it is now. These artworks bear battle scars.

clearing presents the idea that the crux of an experience lies within the journey, not merely in the destination, just as Ehrlich’s process of creating artworks forms the narrative. Even her use of precise, laborious techniques mimics the emotionally and physically taxing, intimate journey that self-discovery entails.

Ehrlich’s distinct ability to pair multiple forms of textile manipulation and destruction such as macramé, crocheting, bleaching, and dying leads to each piece pushing and pulling against itself, inciting a visceral reaction from viewers as they try to contend with the growth and struggle occurring within the work. Every piece I stepped up to was “required reading,” rather than a finalized idea presented to me for my opinion. 

Hannah Ehrlich, Ruptured 1; cotton, rayon, dye, bleach.

In this way Ehrlich dares viewers and herself to respect the unknown potential dangers of the journey we must take to forge an honorable relationship with ourselves. This isn’t an exhibition of absolutes and resolutions. Ehrlich doesn’t promise a cleansed, unblemished result. This is about embracing the fact that evolution and eventual destruction of the old is the only way to become anew.

Hannah Ehrlich, Ruptured 2; cotton, rayon, dye, bleach.

The exhibition emphasizes this idea using multiple iterations of the same piece. For example, a series of Ehrlich’s wall hanging fiber sculptures—Ruptured 1, Ruptured 2, and Burning, Burned—have similar orientations, but the addition and subtraction of techniques, materials, and colors across the works affirm that each one represents a different stage of the same story.

Hannah Ehrlich, Burning, Burned; cotton, rayon, bleach.

The tightly woven and bunched up fabric of Ruptured 1 have hues of blues, purples, blacks, and browns, like that of a fresh bruise, with tassels literally rupturing from the right side of the piece. Viewing Ruptured 2, it was as though I was witnessing a much darker, more lived-in version of Ruptured 1. Ehrlich illustrates the experience of living through the difficult and often ugly stages of healing and transformation. The bruised coloring referenced in the first iteration has progressed into a dark, dingy hue, like the gradual recovery of a bruise. In place of the tassels on the right side of Ruptured 1, there was a small mass of strings hanging limply out of the bottom of the sculpture, suggesting that a significant amount of time had passed between the fresh bruising of Ruptured 1 and the healing made visible in Ruptured 2.

Burning, Burned bears similarities to Ruptured 1 and Ruptured 2, but the black fabric is highlighted by bleached fabric with an almost golden hue. A single, longer, healthier-looking gold tassel hangs from the bottom of the piece with strips of bleached fabric beside it. The imagery triggers multiple interpretations: how one may apply heat to heal a bruise, how a bruise takes on a yellow/brown color in the final stages of healing, or how the destruction caused by burning can yield new life. The work offers a great display of what curator Makeda Lewis describes as “the cyclical nature of living and the clairvoyance of seeing the next form of what’s in front of you.” 

Considering the idea of process as narrative in the gallery space, I began to wonder where this clearing is located. What is the “fertile exhale” that is promised? I found the answer in the middle of the room.

Detail view of The Exhale by Hannah Ehrlich.

Aptly named The Exhale, this textile work is a striking installation of manipulated fabric: some piled on the floor of the gallery, and some suspended from the ceiling at different heights. Ehrlich refrained from dyeing the black fabric and opted to bleach certain portions of it to draw the viewer’s attention to the texture and techniques used in the piece. As I walked around the work, I enjoyed the fact that I was able to view the installation from several viewpoints and receive a new interpretation from every vantage point. For me, reading the artwork from back to front was most impactful because it offers a clear view of the ascension of the fabric into the air. The bulky, knobby nature of the macramé clusters of fabric at the back give the piece a heaviness that remains even as the pieces ascend. The bundles of fabric suspended at the highest point start off black and fade into a bleached, off-white color as the macramé fabric unravels into frayed limp tassels. The bleaching process evokes the idea that something has been harshly stripped of its former richness, becoming a shadow of its former self.

Visit the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University and spend the day a world away!

Here, the exhibition illuminates an interesting perspective. Ascension typically leads to something buoyant and new, but The Exhale stays true to the show’s larger message: one’s path to self-discovery, and to building a stronger relationship with self, is not clean cut. It requires a thorough, terrifying, ugly, and delicate examination of the chaos of our emotions, experiences, and subconscious to uncover the light that we are searching for. The result of self-work is not a sanitized, neatly packed, new version of ourselves. It is a raw, fruitful exhale comprising our bruises and imperfections to make space for the next stage of our journey.

clearing: a fertile exhale an exhibition by Hannah Ehrlich, curated by Makeda Lewis, was on view at Swan Coach House Gallery from February 16 – March 23, 2023.

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