14 December 2023

Nothing Is Not

Joshua Hagler’s Nihil explores routes
through absence


by Kate Mothes

“There is a tinge of the pejorative in [the word nothing]… that it would be understood negatively, that one wouldn’t want nothing,” says Joshua Hagler in a short film (included below). A few years ago, the New Mexico-based artist was struck by an idea, or more precisely, a word: nihil. He can’t pinpoint a specific moment or impetus but describes experiencing it flash into his mind and linger there, surfacing again and again until he was prompted to research its meaning.

While the Latin term “nihil” is often translated directly to the word “nothing,” it is often used in modern language in the context of “nihilism,” a philosophy or doctrine centering around extreme skepticism or rejection that life ultimately has any meaning. “Nothing is not nothing,” Hagler says, considering how Nihil came into being as an ongoing series of paintings, explorations around New Mexico, and architectural interventions in abandoned buildings. Instead of meaninglessness or erasure, he considers the concept in relation to a change in presence and life’s inherent possibilities. He continues, “It’s about absence, I think, and speaking about absence by speaking into the absence.”

Hagler, who meditates often, began tuning into sounds more frequently, whether listening to music or out in nature. He recalls hearing very distant, small, bell-like sound that come and go on the wind, and over time, his attention to sound has influenced and even challenged the image in terms of what compels him to paint. “There is a way in which, when patient, everything around oneself begins to take on structure: the held breath (this is the picture), the inhale (step into the picture), and the exhale (let go of the picture),” he says.

The artist was drawn to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s 1977 piece “Arbos,” with a musical structure reflecting the branching of a tree. In particular, Hagler interpreted a simple line sketch of a tree that Pärt drew into a loose map that the artist could use to chart journeys around New Mexico by tracing a similar-shaped route on state roads. Installed in abandoned civic or religious buildings, the installations evoke time frozen in place—or vice versa—where dozens of children’s handprints remain on the wall of a gymnasium or papers and files are strewn about the floor of a classroom.

Likening the form of “Arbos” to that of an ancient, forking river, Hagler connects ideas relating to the origin and flow of creation, in terms of both life and artistic expression. In his own writings, the artist quotes Pärt: “Before one says something, perhaps it is better to say nothing. My music has emerged only after I have been silent for quite some time, literally silent.”

Hagler reflects on the passing of time and the cycles of his own creative process, seeking places that have been long forgotten or overlooked. Old churches and religious buildings, a post office, and abandoned schools and classrooms juxtapose paintings on canvas with weathered structures and desert landscapes, reimagining exhibition environments far removed from the art world’s established hubs.

Nihil seems to embody a sort of spiritual cartography, combining elements of a journey through the artist’s internal spiritual and artistic explorations, paralleled by travels through a vast physical landscape. The paintings imbue physical spaces with a presence, whether that might be called a spirit, life, or something else that implies fullness or attendance. As his own practice has evolved over time, Hagler describes how representational images increasingly “dissolve further and further into abstract fields” in his work. Figurative forms emerge from textured fields of color, partially submerge in water, appear silhouetted, or fade in and out of view as if the surface not only contains them but administers their existence.

Hagler’s solo exhibition I Would Not Speak of the Mountain continues at Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles through December 22. Explore much more on the artist’s website and Instagram.

All images © Joshua Hagler

Share your thoughts