November/December 2006

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Sublime Anachronisms:
Hilary Wilder‚s Contemporary Landscapes

TEXT / Michelle White

Borrowing freely from the picturesque language of J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and other eighteenth and nineteenth-century artists who catapulted the romance of the landscape into art history‚s upper echelons, Hilary Wilder wholeheartedly embraces the academic tradition. In the paintings in her studio, layers of tinted glaze and acrylic washes lap against horizon lines and accentuate shorelines built with heavy impasto. Smoky clouds swell in feathery agitation against rich palettes of saturated chocolate browns, burnt umbers, earthy maroons, and cool icy blues. Stormy skies and mountain ranges make dramatic cuts in the picture plane. Ultimately, her scenes are so seductive that they defy the cynicism one might expect from a contemporary artist who anachronistically delights in being categorized as a landscape painter. In a post-Katrina era, however, Wilder‚s potentially outmoded investment in the power of landscape painting to control and tame nature is a timely measure of culture‚s increased sensitivity to the natural environment. It also reflects the aesthetic and temporal collision course that is contemporary art.

Hilary Wilder, Santa Clarita 2, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 32 inches (courtesy of the artist)

In the history of literature and visual art, the sublime landscape has traditionally wielded a set of signs whose convergence expressed humanity‚s vulnerable relationship to nature. Crystallized in the canonical image of the German Romantic perched on a ledge and gazing out over the mist, it is a strange mixture of awe and fear that serves as a daunting reflection on the minuteness of the individual in an overwhelming world. In his 1856 publication, Modern Painters, John Ruskin defined the „landscape impulseš as a symptom of the anxiety brought on by the industrial revolution‚s sweeping changes, „the elements of progress and decline being strangely mingled in the modern mind.š1 For Wilder, the formal and conceptual contradictions posed by the landscape are therefore perfect tools to question the meaning of place, and „the dissonance that occurs when the real stumbles upon the ideal.š2 Hoping to elicit an „automatic romanticš response, the artist uses the profound familiarity of the genre as a protective shield in order to revise its critical function in the contemporary environment.

Hilary Wilder, A Long, Long Year, 2005, acrylic on canvas, acrylic and latex on wall, canvas: 36 x 48 inches, installation: 144 x 288 inches (courtesy of the artist)

This strategy is first evident in seemingly irreverent, but subtle, formal manipulations that prevent the viewer from fully succumbing to Wilder‚s imaginary worlds. Graphic patches sit on the surface. They contain drips of paint and meticulous renderings of wood grain. Beautifully incorporated into the lines of the work, these frustrating patches prevent easy escape into the picture plane. Derived from a careful study of the histories of aesthetics and interior décor, patterns and motifs like fleurs-de-lis and Carnaby stripes further complicate the landscapes. Quietly nestled in the geography, and spilling from the canvas onto the wall, their sneaky connotation of ordinary, material stuff competes with the ethereal imagery.

Hilary Wilder, The Living Room at Baristo Manor, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (courtesy of the artist and Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery)

The nested square is a recurrent motif in Wilder‚s work. It is a conflation of cool 1970s patterns found in her father‚s homeųwhich graced framed lithographs and fabric designsųand the methodical geometry of Josef Albers‚s mid-century color experiments. These squares emerge from clouds, conform to the terrain, and continue onto the wall in random patternsųnaturally dispersed like stars, yet as regular as wallpaper pattern. Playing with the hieratical division between decoration and the pinnacle of modern art‚s quest for intellectual purity, Wilder questions how we position ourselves in our own quotidian environment when we are faced with idealized versions of a more perfect world. Her struggle to seamlessly incorporate disparate formal elements into the landscape is a poignant meditation on the melancholic anxiety that emerges in the space between the things we wish were true and the dull reality of daily life.

Wilder clearly takes pure pleasure in the process of painting and in the insertion of formal disruptions. The tension that she thus creates is also rooted in her interest in natural phenomena. When she moved to Southern California in 2001, Orange County wildfires, mudslides in Malibu, earthquake devastation, and smog alerts ignited her imagination. After all, this place was supposed to be steeped in glamour. Was it not ironic that these air-polluting disasters also turned the sky a hazy romantic brown, and that the picture-perfect region scrabbled to deal with environmental assaults by perpetrating an idyllic mythology? For this reason, the painting‚s context became an important element in her cataclysmic representations, and she started to paint directly on the wall. She pushed the imagery into real space, transformed it through decorative elements, extended its horizon line into abstract divisions of color, and confined the support through stabilizing frames and painted blocks. This acknowledgement of the gallery‚s architecture joined force with the beauty of Wilder‚s paint handling to domesticate the difficult subject matter.

Hilary Wilder, A House is Not a Hotel, The Voyage South to Patience Camp, 2006, acrylic on canvas and acrylic and latex on wall, dimensions variable, canvas dimensions: 48 x 60 inches (courtesy of the artist and Bucket Rider Gallery)

The Voyage South to Patience Camp, her installation of paintings shown at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center this past spring, sustains the artist‚s fascination with nature‚s destructive power. Wilder borrowed the title from Sir Ernest Shackleton‚s account of his Arctic expeditions at the turn of the previous century. She also loosely based the work on his harrowing descriptions and archival photographs. Yet, while she includes sinking wooden boats and splintered shelters, references to the journey are abstract and she concentrates on the less obvious. For example, seemingly inspired by an obscure passage in Shackleton‚s story, where the explorer describes the failure of the wood floorboards in the tent cabin, she painted the textured pattern of trompe l‚oeil wood grain directly on the wall in one area of the installation.3 A window of wood planks in a glacial plane of gray, it is a funny domestic detail for such a daunting and icy backdrop.

Hilary Wilder, Sundown: Bandera with Some Rectangles, 2006, acrylic on canvas, panels, and wall, 100 x 120 inches (courtesy the artist)

In many ways, Wilder veils the specific clues that might connect the work to the Arctic narrative, as if she were intentionally flirting with the amount of information she wants to provide. It‚s a frustrating aspect of her work, but it is also the crux of her projectųto navigate both the ubiquity of representations of what we want to be true and the reality of the situation, simultaneously. Limiting access to the story draws attention to the paradox of the artist‚s subjective presence in the sweeping, universal implications of landscape. It also inscribes a personal projection on the façade of a faithful recording of the environment. This very contradiction led Ruskin to distill his definition of the landscape into „an arrangement of remembrancesš4ųyet another sweet dichotomy that adds to Wilder‚s excavations of the genre‚s many complex, contradictory layers.

Hilary Wilder, Bequia, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 96 inches (courtesy of the artist and Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery)

In turn, she fully exploits this dichotomy in her most autobiographical series, Sail to Bequia, Evening Turtle Grove, 2006. This body of landscape paintings derives from Wilder‚s recollection of a trip her father made to the Caribbean in 1985. This occasioned his uncanny encounter with Mick Jagger at a seaside bar. In contrast to the abandon and debauchery of a rock star, her fatherųa high-functioning autistic engineerųrelated the trip through a list of expenditures. This collision of characters parallels her larger questions about the landscape‚s ability to fulfill our yearning to believe in what we want to be truth. Recognizing this, she decided to enlist a romantic language, complete with windswept palm trees, interior spaces, and mahogany details to tell the story. She designed this strategy in order to negate the melancholy she experiences when she thinks about what her father could have experienced. Wilder‚s uneasy synthesis of her clandestine vocabulary and the romantic sense of a mythic place asks provocative questions similar to those of the Shackleton narrative. Why does the landscapeųor the stylized representation of our understanding of the worldųserve as such a critical antidote to reality?

In the 2005 exhibition Landscape Confection, curator Helen Molesworth argued that, in contemporary art, the landscape is characterized by gleeful embellishments, and that it participates in the history of painting‚s troubled relationship to the decorative. She asserted that candy-coated surfaces subversively rebel against reality, and are „a carefully constructed mode designed to protect its inhabitants from the trials and tribulations of the exterior world.š5 To be sure, Wilder‚s remix of techniques and quotations from art‚s past participates in this conceptual project. Yet, her disregard of the irony of painting through an earnest engagement with personal history is significant. In her work, swirling beauty and cacophonous contradictions carefully mediate physical and psychological barriersųbe they exterior or interior. They also rely on the viewer‚s deep, emotional response and reverence of the natural world. With growing threats of global warming and the realities of cataclysmic weather, the landscape can no longer serve as a metaphor for the ungraspable, nor can it serve as a neutral stand-in for an academic conversation about the status of art. Physically and emotionally, Wilder‚s revision of the sublime landscape confronts a new reality.


1. John Ruskin, quoted by Brian Lukacher, „Nature Historicized: Constable, Turner, and Romantic Landscape Painting,š Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994, 115.

2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from the author‚s conversations with the artist.

3. A passage reads: „The floorŲboards forming the old tentŲbottoms had prevented the sun from thawing the snow directly underneath them, and were in consequence raised about two feet above the level of the surrounding floe.š Sir Ernest Shackleton, South: A Memoir of An Endurance Voyage, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1998, 109.

4. John Ruskin, quoted by Mark Roskill, The Languages of Landscape, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

5. Helen Molesworth, Landscape Confection, Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, 2005, 13.

Michelle White is curatorial assistant at The Menil Collection in Houston. She is also a regional editor of Artlies, The Texas Journal of Contemporary Art.


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