A Northern Tale
June 15 through August 5, 2012
Prior to her dual Visual Artist and Critical Studies Fellowships with the Core Program at the Museum of FIne Arts, Houston, Hilary Wilder received her M.A. and M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including grants from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Wilder currently serves on the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. Her most recent work draws on the landscape, history and legends of Ireland and Iceland where she spent residencies in 2010 and 2011.
DB: The title is A Northern Tale. Is the show a story or is this about storytelling?
HW: I think a thread that runs through all of the work is the idea that our perceptions of particular places and events aren’t really accurate, and that a lot of how we sense and feel about place is based on our beliefs and our willingness to be moved.
DB: Your earlier works critiqued the romanticizing of catastrophe. Is Romantic landscape painting itself the subject?
HW: I’ve always had a strange relationship to 19th-century Romantic landscape painting, because while I’m really captivated by the paintings of Bierstadt, Cole, Durand, and the like, I also feel a bit skeptical, as if I have to remind myself that they’re using certain tricks of color, light, and atmosphere – you know, painter’s tricks. This might have something to do with my having grown up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where a lot of those artists painted from time to time. I am completely in love with their paintings, but I also know first-hand how false they can be. So maybe I’m especially sensitive to the notion that much of the history of landscape painting – and, by extension, paintings about catastrophic events in the landscape – has to do with hyperbolizing a sense of place and inviting drama, whether good or bad, into our everyday lives.
DB: So Iceland and Ireland – your experiences there – were also influential?
HW: I think my most recent work has grown out of similar feelings regarding location and travel; people often esteem particular places as possessing a kind of magic. I don’t necessarily disagree – I think that Reykjavik, for instance, is a beautiful and special place – but I’ve been surprised by the number of times people have asked if my trips to Iceland have ”changed my life”. I guess I feel like a bit of a loser for failing to have the kind of transformative, transcendent experience that is expected of me, but I have great affection for the experiences I have had. So, by making work that is based on complete falsifications and misquotings of both regional landscape and regional design, I give myself permission to get it wrong. I can participate in the culture of a place that doesn’t actually exist and contribute to the aesthetic sensibilities of this non-place.
DB: The sculptural elements are new. What’s driving this?
HW: I think of the sculptures as creating a counterpoint to what is happening in the paintings and drawings, and they also insert a different aesthetic into the mix. Just as I’m simultaneously enamored with and skeptical of Romantic landscape painting, I have a similar fascination with early 20th century Modern objects. It seems a lot of people have a really strong attraction to what is now an almost historical modernism; for instance, it’s easy to see how the work of designers like Eileen Gray and Adolph Loos have influenced contemporary furniture and object design.
DB: The works of Gray and Loos are wonderfully pared down, but the hand is removed. Your sculpture, you can see these are handmade — the tiny rivets, the irregular shapes…
HW: So what I’ve been trying to with the PVC sculptures is to use this rather common material to create things that might seem both modern and ancient (and, as a consequence, are obviously neither). Both the Viking’s Skiff and The Garment for Island Nations are made from hand-cut PVC and pieced to together to make quasi-modernist renditions of antiquated objects (a norse ship and a tunic). The Raft sculpture is a little different; as it is simply hand-painted paper and twine, it’s intended to be both delicate and vulnerable, while possessing the illusion of weight. I think of it as trompe l’oeil painting’s answer to a kind of commonplace heavy-duty wood sculpture.
DB: Do you distinguish pieces in your mind as being more or less independent while you’re making them?
HW: While I was working on the pieces for this show, I was aware of what each element would be saying in response to the others, what each one was adding to the conversation. What I was aiming for was a particular feeling or sensibility – on first inspection, about a false sense of place and history, but in a larger sense about how we decide whether or not to place value on objects based on certain aesthetic choices or materials. So the specific strategy for the interactions among the works has changed over time, but the interest in a cross-referencing between them is always there.
DB: Yet as the elements have expanded, the use of wall painting has lessened. Any reason why?
HW: I think with the earlier shows my interest in installation was about controlling context, and structuring a visual experience in which one element would naturally lead to another. In the first show you and I did together (Basin, 2003), I was focusing on an almost filmic staging of different scenes, colors, and passages on the walls. In the current show, because so much of what I’ve made relates to the development of a particular aesthetic or a sense of design, there are repeated formal motifs, colors, and pacing in the works.
DB: The totality here – painting, drawing, wall painting, sculpture, the crêpe de Chine – can we say “gesamtkunstwerk”?
HW: While I’ve never created anything that has been elaborate or all-encompassing enough to be characterized as “gesamtkunstwerk”, I suppose it might just be a matter of time before I give it a try.