Michael Hilsman (b. 1984, Los Angeles, California) creates paintings that bring together what he describes as ‘physical and immaterial states of being’. In his images, which hover between still life and portraiture, objects and protagonist command equal status. Hilsman says that these objects often have a ‘frayed, tenuous connection to their own materiality’ serving as vessels, shells, veils or surfaces that conceal and trigger a memory or experience, be that collective or personal. At times interchangeable, the subjects of his paintings, both animate and inanimate, are used to construct scenes that address complex notions of the self.
‘Introductions | Michael Hilsman’ is curated by Mathieu Paris, Senior Director.
‘As an artist, I am interested in the moment when these objects, these ‘selves’, begin to flicker and dissolve, and thus offer, if only fleetingly, the possibility of perfect union between our physical reality and a deeper, unfathomable ultimate reality.’
In the two portraits M. With Lemon, Cactus and Flowers (2020) and M. With Flowers No. 3 (2020), plants and flowers serve as stand-ins for the man’s own obscured features. As in the paintings of the 16th-century Italian artist Arcimboldo, a flower is located where an eye might be, and the handle of a cup could easily be confused for the curve of an ear. Similarly, in Man with Thorns (2020), the tall line of cactus plants in the foreground both obscures and mirrors the figure standing behind, inviting the viewer to see the man as analogous to the spiky plant.
‘I think my interest in vegetables, fruits and still life painting is really just a way back into the figure. It can be comparable to the figure in how interesting it is to paint – if you take the kind of absurdity of the body – how ear hair, knobbly knuckles, things like that, that everyone regardless of culture associates with certain things, you can translate those to a piece of wood, to fruits and vegetables, to an old hat.’
For Hilsman, objects act as a vehicle of translation, bearing some of the ‘absurdities’ that are likewise the features of the human body – knuckles, ears, feet, body hair. Exploring the human figure as parts distinct from the whole, and in visual dialogue with other objects, brings to life what the artist calls the ‘potent quality of the object’ itself.
Cigar, Matches, Apples (2020), a still life comprised of six apples lying on a tea towel, shows the same fruit but each one a distinctly different variety. In the top left, a burning cigar seems to rest on the horizon line, finding its counterpart in the lit match top right. If the cigar calls to mind the paintings of Philip Guston, this nod to the great American painter goes beyond the motif alone. As with Guston, Hilsman uses a lexicon of objects that reappear in his paintings, alongside what we might assume is a self portrait.
‘I’ve found that a number of objects have appeared and reappeared in my work over the years. I think of them as letters in an alphabet that I myself am still trying to learn.’
Hilsman’s work carries a fictional imperative, the narrative of which, however, remains just out of reach. At first familiar, each scene eventually dissolves into a fragmented, even surreal scenario. Curtains of flora and fauna, or an open book that obscures a face, are all part of his painterly apparatus, revealing only small glimpses of a larger implied story. As Hilsman states, ‘This is how I think of a good painting – "the tip of the iceberg” as they say. The painting is unlocking something much larger than itself.’
The artist makes use of illusionary and compositional devices that serve to complicate any linear reading, and the tension between figuration and abstraction confuses this further. In works such as Still Life Landscape (2020) and Oranges on a Lawn (2020), his compositions offer quasi–theatrical backdrops that flatten the picture plane. Sharp perspectival shifts from horizon line to aerial view serve to tip the still life objects uncomfortably forward.
This combination of illusion and artifice is, however, always held in check by the artist’s subtle use of colour and stylisation. Swimmer (2020) shows a submerged figure, head and arms cut off by the picture frame. The work finds a precedent in David Hockney’s 1960s Los Angeles paintings; the painting’s treatment of the expanse of pale blue water is such that it competes with a drowning or diving figure.
Michael Hilsman was born, lives and works in Los Angeles, California. In 2006 he earned a BA in Studio Art and a BA in Social Change and The Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz and an MFA in Art from Hunter College, City University of New York, in 2012. He has held exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including recent solo exhibitions ‘Pictures of 'M.' and Other Pictures’ at Almine Rech, New York and 'New Pictures’ at Galerie Sébastien Bertrand, Geneva.
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