Stephen Hilyard: The Beautiful Lie
Stephen Hilyard: The Beautiful Lie
Opens Saturday, December 1, at MMoCA
MADISON, WI -- The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will present recent works by Madison artist Stephen Hilyard from December 1, 2007, through February 17, 2008. Stephen Hilyard: The Beautiful Lie uses videos and photographic works to explore the power and reliability of the image in contemporary culture. The exhibition will be on view in MMoCA's State Street Gallery.
Stephen Hilyard will discuss his work on Friday, December 7, at 6:30 pm in conjunction with First Fridays at MMoCA.
Works in the exhibition include a recent series of compositions entitled King Wave in which Hilyard uses dramaticand doctoredphotographs to probe the truthfulness and iconic stature of the image. Compositions in this series show monstrous green waves coupled with diminutive images of curb architecture in Los Angeles cemeteries. By juxtaposing these radically different landscape images, the artist demonstrates the close ties and tension between popular culture and the sacred.
Stephen Hilyard: The Beautiful Lie also includes photographs from the series
50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast. Hilyard's images of the moored battleship are presented as sexualized and ironic depictions of a popular tourist attraction. In the accompanying artist's book, those same images are paired with phrases from the “Litany of Loreto,” a liturgical prayer dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
A trilogy of videos by the artist will also play in the gallery. The first in the trilogy, Always, shows a dancing cloud that twists and flips to the melody of Willie Nelson's “You Were Always on My Mind.” This video will be back-projected to be visible from the street, thereby engaging visitors both inside and outside the gallery. The second video, One Life, combines dialogue from a daytime soap opera with animated images of spring blossoms on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and the staccato movement of bees. The final video, Sunflower, pairs video imagery of melting pack ice on Lake Superior with a narrative sequence co-authored by Hilyard and Jon Wei.
Stephen Hilyard was born and raised in Northern England. He studied architecture at the Edinburgh College of Art and received a master's degree in architecture from the University of Humberside, Hull, UK. In the 1990s, Hilyard moved to the United States He received a master's of fine arts degree from the University of Southern California in 1997, and since then has been making conceptually driven works of art, including videos, installations, photographs, textile-based objects, and wood-carvings. He is an associate professor of Digital Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His works have been shown at The Renaissance Society, Chicago, IL; the Tweed Museum of Art, Duluth, MN; the SOO Visual Arts Center, Minneapolis; the Platform Gallery, Seattle; the Haus Gallery, Pasadena, CA; and the Cherry de los Reyes Gallery, Los Angeles.
Generous support for Stephen Hilyard: The Beautiful Lie has been provided by the Harpo Foundation; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, with additional funds from the Overture Foundation; American TV; the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin.
Hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are Tuesday–Wednesday (11 am–5 pm); Thursday-Friday (11 am–8 pm); Saturday (10 am–8 pm); and Sunday (noon–5 pm). The museum is closed on Mondays.
Admission to exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free of charge. MMoCA is supported through memberships and through generous contributions and grants from individuals, corporations, agencies, and foundations. Important support is also generated through auxiliary group programs; special events; rental of the museum's lobby, lecture hall, and rooftop garden; and sales through the Museum Store.
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A Conversation with Stephen Hilyard
Jane Simon (MMoCA Curator of Exhibitions): You were born in England, educated in Scotland, and moved to the United States after finishing your architecture training. Do you think that cross-pollination of contexts, both European and American, has influenced your work?
Stephen Hilyard: Yes, without a doubt. A lot of my work deals with the ways in which I feel my own culture, that of western Europe, has informed my experience of the world. I think it is much easier to look at that culture from the outside than from the inside; there is a certain advantage to being an exile. Past projects, such as Inconsolable, have dealt specifically with the relationship between American and European cultures, but I think the condition of exile is an important part of the creation of all my work.
Simon: Has your architecture training come in handy as an artist?
Hilyard: One aspect of my training as an architect that left a lasting impression on me was the concept of rigor, and its importance for any creative person. In architecture school, I learned to take what I was doing very seriously, maybe too seriously. Some sense of perspective is required, and within the context of my own art practice I try to think carefully and fully about all the decisions I make, and not to accept second best from myself.
Simon: So many architects today want to make art. What were the limits of architecture that made you want to make art? What questions did art pose that architecture could not accommodate?
Hilyard: There were two ways that I felt limited by the profession of architecture (in contrast to the educational experience of architecture, which is quite another thing). The first is a basic fact of life for any designer: you have a client who is paying you for your creative and/or logistical skills, but ultimately, you work within the field of opportunity offered by their needs and tastes. This is where political and rhetorical skills become as important as design skills. Successful architects are a lot like successful film directors in that regardtheir vision would never be realized if they weren't able to impress their will on the other people involved in the project.
Even taking the client out of the picture (which happens to a large degree in architecture school), I felt limited as an architectural designer in that program I could only express ideas through an architectural design relevant to the task at hand. For instance, if you are designing a chair, you can express what you feel about the act of sitting, but, I wanted to deal with more abstract and emotive issues than those brought up by most building projects. During graduate school for architecture, I gravitated towards religious and ceremonial buildings, including art museums, monuments, etc. because they allowed me to deal with what I saw as larger issues. However, I always knew that the only way I could make work focused on the things that really interested me was as an artist.
Simon: Are there particular British or Irish cultural phenomena or particulars that appear or reappear in your work?
Hilyard: I think of the cultural references in my work as European and historical because I'm interested in the larger picture of how culture shapes our minds. For some reason the more specific questions of “English-ness” do not come up for me as much as they do for an artist like Mark Wallinger (who has made some brilliant work on the subject.) Maybe that's because I no longer live there. It might also be because, while all of my work is derived from my own experience and vision, I don't think of it as auto-biographical. I feel like I am using myself as an example to examine qualities of the mind that we all share to some degree, qualities that are made important by that fact. I do feel part of a larger whole, that is to say a culture.
Simon: You've described your work as dealing with notions of the sublime. Can you explain what this complex philosophical idea might mean for you and how you came to also address landscape?
Hilyard: The association between the sublime and landscape, particularly wild landscapes, is part of the culture that made me. I could say that I first became aware of this kind of thing as a young climber who was drawn to the wilder hills and mountains of Britain and Norway, but that would make it sound like there was some kind of inherent connection there between those landscapes and this experience. That's not really true: if it wasn't for the whole eighteenth and nineteenth century “re-imagining” of wilderness landscapes I would never have been out there in the mountains in the first place. I would probably have seen them as ugly and dangerous, which is how they were seen before the Enlightenment. I might have stayed home and studied rhetoric instead. All of which is to say that my interest in the nineteenth-century landscape tradition of the sublime is primarily to do with the fact that this is the most recent and prominent example of the history of the sublime as an idea. My approach to the subject has changed over the years. In my earlier work, I think I was trying to follow in the footsteps of other artists, poets and philosophers, who were trying to define or express or explain the most profound of experiences. In my more recent work I have changed my approach, because I don't think it's desirable or even possible to represent that level of experience. Rather, I have turned my attention to the persistence of theidea of the sublime, and the fact that it recurs endlessly in our culture and society although no one had ever managed to truly express or explain it. Maybe no one has ever really even experienced it, but there is this recurring belief that it's out there somewhere. In that context, the historical examples of art history including Casper David Friedrich and the Hudson River School, are raw material for me because they are concrete examples taken from that history that I am interested in exploring.
Simon: Melodrama, sexuality, aggression, and irony are just some of the thoughts that come to my mind when I look at the images and accompanying book for the 50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast, 2004. Are these reactions that you intended?
Hilyard: Yes, yes, not really and yes. 50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast deals with our relationship to our own bodies, one of the parts of our culture that I believe frustrates any hope of truly experiencing the sublime. For me the battleship is a perfect metaphor for the Cartesian Split, the idea that our true existence resides in the mind (or the soul or whatever non-corporeal concept you prefer) and that our bodies are just a housing mechanism. The battleship metaphor demonstrates this alienation from the physical created by this view of existence. The vessel is a self contained worldinward looking and heavily defensive. It floats in the middle of what appears to be a vast void: the ocean. However the ocean is not really a desert; it only appears to be if you are stuck on the surface. It is, in fact, a vibrant and living space, below the surface. The phrases of the litany, the second element of the piece, reference another way in which our culture has historically alienated the body of the individual These are the special cases of the sacred body or the royal body. I first came across this concept when I was learning the story of Dido and the founding of Carthage. In that story, the queen's body is not her own. Instead, it's a literal physical manifestation of the state, and as such it's a matter of state when it gets sick, when it copulates or procreates. The same applies to the saint's body, and in this case, the Virgin Mary. These are some of the ideas that made me want to try and work against the grain and create eroticized and feminized images of the battleship.
Simon: I know your grandfather was stationed on a British naval ship during WWII. Do autobiographical elements or details often enter or inform your work?
Hilyard: My grandfather served on the H.M.S. Edinburgh, sister ship to the Belfast and originally of identical design. He was on the Edinburgh until its last voyage. He was transferred shortly before it set out on its last mission carrying tons of gold bullion to the Russians at the height of WWII. It was scuppered by the British after it had been disabled in battle, and it went to the bottom along with all the gold. The H.M.S Belfast survived the war (as did my grandfather) and was eventually retired as a museum ship in London. When I found out that it was originally identical to the Edinburgh I decided to visit it, just to get some idea of what it must have been like for my grandfather on the Edinburgh. The piece grew from that first visit. The connection with my grandfather is not really important to the piece, other than being part of the process.
Simon: We see manipulated images all the time in magazines and on the internet. Do you think your students and other young people can recognize this indoctrination? If they don't, and they become aware of it through your work, do you think this changes their relationship to the media-saturated world around them? And, what about the relationship of older individuals to your workdo you think their wonder with your work is akin to admiration for an artist's ability to apply or move paint to a canvas?
Hilyard: It has always been the case that the camera can lie. I think people are more aware of that than they used to be because of the increased availability and sophistication of the basic tools, such as computers and media, that are used. At the same time I know that there is still a lot of synthetic imagery and simulation that is not recognized as such because of its feasibility. It's amazing to find out how much of a movie like Brokeback Mountain, for instance, was actually created with a computer. Not a space ship or dinosaur in sight, they just needed some extra mountain ranges, herds of sheep etc.
The goal with my digital work is to give enough clues to the viewer that they will become aware at some point that they are looking at something synthetic. Maybe that moment of recognition that could change their view of the media, but that's not my goal. My interest in simulation is to use it as a metaphor for “reality,” in other words the subjective and culturally constructed nature of all experience. I think I also have an interest in craftsmanship that has carried over from my work in other mediums, like sculpture. I want to seduce my viewer with beauty and fine craftsmanship, which applies just as much to a piece created with software as it does to a sculptural piece.
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