Dil Hildebrand: Going Back to the Drawing Board by Mary Reid
Dil Hildebrand, Phase (2011).
This text by MARY REID was published along side DIL HILDEBRAND‘S Back to the Drawing Board exhibition.
With Dil Hildebrand’s new series of paintings, he is literally and figuratively going «back to the drawing board.»[i] Taking a new trajectory which finds its roots in his previous «Studio» series this new body of work extends Hildebrand’s experimentation with the tropes of painting. In doing so he is moving beyond the primary subjects of his earlier works, painting’s weighty historical theatre and grand landscapes, and trying to find answers from a very personal position of introspection. By reversing figure and ground and playing with distortion and depth of field, these canvases, made in the past few months in his Montreal studio, are about returning to the basic building blocks of image making, in terms of process, composition, and creation.
In 2010, Hildebrand made a very conscious and deliberate move away from his focus on the landscape, and turned to his own studio spaces, in Mexico and Montreal, as the subject of his paintings. The artist’s studio is more than just a space to work, as it provides rare insight into the mind of the artist. Its organization, what is there and what isn’t, reveals crucial details about the creative process. The sole function of this private domain is to create; it is a place marked by the passage of one reality to another – paint into a painting.
With Hildebrand’s «Studio» series, the safe arena of working and contemplating evolved into a mirrored representation. The artist would begin by painting a very realistic rendering of his own studio space, including depictions of the stairs that lead up to a mezzanine, chairs, work tables and bits of artistic detritus. Thus the initial impulse for each work was quite autobiographical yet the end results would become surprisingly impersonal due to the artist’s ability to distort, blur and erase through the use of transparent and opaque paints and paint handling techniques. However, even through all this «erasing,» traces of the studio environment were still consciously kept visible.
The large triptych Bridge (2011) included in this exhibition can be seen as a continuation of his «Studio» series. Placed in relation to the other recent «Drawing Board» paintings, this piece acts as a very present reminder of the initial source of inspiration. It is an actual «bridge» between the two series. For Hildebrand this work and its title also makes «reference to music, as a passage that binds two distinct parts of a song; the dominant shapes in the painting resemble the rising and falling of tones in an equalizer as it charts the tonal ranges of a piece of music.»
Akin to composing a song, Bridge has changed significantly over its course of creation. As with his earlier works, Hildebrand used photography and techniques to manipulate the image in Photoshop to create digital sketches before working up the image on the canvas. Through this process, his key concern was «how much of the image can be released» so that what remains is still able to signify or represent the initial source; the studio space. Here the viewer is provided glimpses of the blank backs of canvases, ubiquitous wooden stretcher bars, and the studio floor. However over the course of making the work, Hildebrand pulled it closer in line to the other «Drawing Board» paintings, eliminating even more of the photographic image and incorporating the palette and character reflected in his new series.
The purposeful «lack of character» or lack of information found in Bridge is heightened by the large bands of dark green and white. These two colours for Hildebrand are «locked together in a spirit of exploration.» The green references the chalkboard or cutting board while the white signifies the stark gallery or studio wall or even a freshly gessoed canvas– in other terms both planes of colour allude to «a clean slate» (pun intended). Dark green is a very powerful signifying colour that is loaded with meaning, evoking nature, envy and money, yet for Hildebrand it represents a beginning, a blank space full of potential. Whereas the textured white bands become a dominant counterpoint to the green surfaces. As the green recedes the white stops the viewer at the surface and is impenetrable. These colours block the traditional clues for interpretation, and open up the work to a larger pool of meanings, which by their nature are more personal and individual. As a result the means of entering Bridge becomes even more discombobulating in comparison to his earlier «Studio» works.
This tension between what can be freed versus what is kept, and the incorporation of planes of green grids and textured white surfaces has been taken one step further in Hildebrand’s smaller, more recent paintings. He has let go of the photographic image as the primary source and also the desire to have the work still retain some direct relationship to a space existing in the real world. Now unconstrained, he went back to the very beginning of creating any composition; he went «back to the drawing board.»
Two works, which mark a distinctive shift towards this new direction of inquiry, are Phase 2 (2011) and Presenting…Yellow Stripe (2011). In both pieces the green colour becomes the «ground» while the presence of the grid suggests concepts of order, data, three dimensional space and even the historical method of drawing, as illustrated in Albrecht Dürer’s etching Draughtsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman (1525). The thick application of paint found on edges of each work brings the flat canvas into the real world. There is a sense of theatricality in both of these works, as if the curtains have been drawn back to reveal the skeleton or true structure of the composition – the grid.
The allusion to the chalkboard surface is further reinforced by the wash of white that appears to cover the green surfaces in Phase 2 and Presenting…Yellow Stripe. This recalls the classroom chore of washing the chalkboard, erasing the day’s lessons in preparation for future instruction and imparting of knowledge. As the transfer of information shapes both the receiver and provider, Hildebrand stands on both sides of this equation with this new body of work.
Areas of these paintings have been scraped away to reveal elements of earlier «failed» paintings below. Further evidence that these works are created from recycled paintings is the white textured planes, which do not lay uniformly flat and the edges that peel over the side of the canvases reveal the layering of paint and former ideas. Hildebrand remarks that he is «dancing on the grave of previous experiments» for «what you screw up tends to give you the best ideas for future paintings that work.» What is significant regarding this reusing process is that it imbeds the works with a depth of time and history. These works once existed as different paintings, which have now been transformed by the artist to something new. However it is the past reality of the work that provides the rich surface upon which Hildebrand can both obliterate and mine. Yet he never really does either completely, instead preferring to leave clues to the existence of his earlier experiments.
This is true in particular for the work Phase 2 (2011), although created from a reclaimed painting it is a direct sister to the earlier orange Phase (2011) which is part of the «Studio» series. When compared to one another, Phase is based off of a photographic source taken of his Mexican studio, and Phase 2 shares many of the same qualities compositionally but it is freed from the photographic source. Although Hildebrand is moving in a new direction he is still indebted to his earlier experiments, in a similar fashion to the way the photographic source is still visible in the «Studio» paintings, the reclaimed paintings to some extent dictate the outcome of their new iterations.
Another element that is featured in this new series of canvases is the dot. In at least six paintings the dot animates the green grid. Specifically the work Dots Where I Like (Not Where They Should Be) (2011) exemplifies Hildebrand’s liberation from the rules prescribed by an image. Instead of the dots being neatly contained and located in the centre of each square as suggested by the grid, they have slipped, and are seemingly placed randomly. In Cascading (2011) the sense of play is further heightened by the incorporation of a third prominent colour in this series, a bright yellowish lime green. Here lime green becomes a stand in for light, pooling at the bottom of each of the dots as they rain down the grid in a seemingly controlled fashion of straight lines.
This attempt of trying to take control of the painting, even in futility, is present in the idiosyncratic meanings and boundaries that Hildebrand constructs only for his use. The tension of white and green, the order of the grid and activation of the dot is extended into several other paintings. Sliding (2011) and Cranking (2011) are a broadening of Hildebrand’s perimeter of meanings that introduce the movement of the compass and other drawing materials such as pencils and pencil crayons into their compositions. There is a sense of progression felt in these paintings, as one circle is layered up and over the other. An almost tangible element of measuring movement in space is traced through corresponding circles, arcs, and the intersection of bands. In these two works a pull to the centre dominates recalling schematic engineering drawings. The landscape of the canvas flips to an aerial view, revealing the internal workings of a machine or the unexplained appearance of crop circles in wheat fields.
These slices into space become more complex in paintings Scope (2011) and Masking (2011), which are almost «diagrams for compositions.» Here the sterility of the paintings is intersected with unexpected spatial elements of layering and relief. With these works, as with Sliding and Cranking, Hildebrand has let go of the horizon line, which was a consistent element throughout many of his earlier works, perhaps a persistent hangover from his time dealing with the landscape. These works bring Hildebrand fully into abstraction as he has «let go of trying to render reality and is now charting reality and truth in painting.» In other words he has let go of the photographic source as the touchstone to the real world and is now solely reliant on the material before him, canvas and paint, and his own imagination to release images, which are about the very act of painting.
These new works stand as part of a rich inquiry into the very elements of creating. Dil Hildebrand has not moved away from his studio as his source of inspiration; he has however mined further inside what the studio represents – the space where the magic of painting occurs. Through his own internal problematic dialogue and his adept skill at handling paint, Hildebrand has moved his practice well beyond illusion and into the very matter and material of painting itself.[ii]
MARY REID is the Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. She has curated a number of exhibitions and contributed to various publications, exhibition catalogues and magazines focused on Canadian contemporary art. Reid has taught and lectured on art and issues regarding curating and exhibition practice at the University of Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, and Georgian College.
DIL HILDEBRAND was born in Winnipeg, Canada, and obtained his MFA from Concordia University, Montreal in 2008. In 2006 he won the RBC Canadian Painting Competition and has since participated in many exhibitions throughout Canada, the United States and abroad. Upcoming exhibitions include group shows at OBORO, Montreal (curated by David Elliott) and Espace Virtuel, Chicoutimi. In 2010, Hildebrand participated in the 4th Beijing International Art Biennale 2010 in Beijing, China, and produced Long Drop: The Paintings of Dil Hildebrand, a monograph by Anteism Press. With critical texts by Louise Déry, Richard Rhodes and Christine Redfern. Long Drop surveys a selection of Hildebrand’s paintings on canvas and paper from 2006 to 2009. His work has been collected by major museums throughout Canada, including the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, and the National Gallery of Canada. Dil Hildebrand is represented by Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain. He lives and works in Montréal.
[i] All quotations are drawing from discussions with the artist which occurred on May 27, 2011 in Winnipeg and July 21, 2011 in Montreal and through an email exchange on August 4, 2011.
[ii] Mary Reid would like to thank Denis Longchamps for his insightful feedback on earlier versions of this essay.