A recurring figure in Michael Hilsman’s large-scale paintings shows a marked sense of vulnerability. With a greying beard and balding head, the man hides from the viewer, lurking behind oversized foliage or covering his face with a gingham napkin.
Only pieces of his body are visible, sometimes surrounded by other human parts – a buried bone lies below the man’s supine figure in ‘M.’ with Laundry; an extracted molar floats next to his head in ‘M.’ with Idioms (Tooth and Nail).
Like Roberto Bolaño’s fictional painter who enshrines his own amputated hand in a self-portrait, the fragmented figure of “M.,” a painted character in close proximity to Hilsman himself, underscores the body’s frailty, its awkwardness and mortality, and the disarming imperatives of being an artist – the discomforts of public exposure, the frequent mortification of self-expression.
Even in the paintings without a figure, the sense of an absent body is palpable in Hilsman’s work. Well-worn leather boots perched on the edge of a swimming pool have a cartoonishly bulbous appearance, as though stretched by oddly misshapen feet. A tablecloth floats magically across the ocean’s surface, offering up an array of seashells and an abundant fruit bowl. Plants, feathers, blue skies, horizon lines—these elements assemble into a symbolic cast of characters that populate Hilsman’s paintings, quasi-theatrical backdrops for an absurdist play.
Working on unprimed linen, Hilsman’s thin brushstrokes magnify the inconsistencies of this support, with its fluctuating absorbency and patches of roughness that catch and hold paint in unpredictable ways. Often inscribing words or titles directly onto his compositions, Hilsman’s paintings disdain naturalism, continually drawing the viewer’s attention to the constructed nature of the picture plane.
In these magical-realist scenes, the plots of evocative narratives seem just beyond reach. Mixed-up and fragmentary, Hilsman’s compositions juxtapose lemon-drop, Hockney-esque California sunlight with the dark soil below the cheerful landscapes, rendered in cross-section view.
A pulled tooth – significant in dreams, according to Freud, as a manifestation of fear of "castration as a punishment for onanism" – coexists in the series with such guileless signifiers as a lone green sock and a clear blue swimming pool. This world cannot be parsed, only drifted through in a gentle haze of wonder, as feathers float through the azure skies, and roots extend into the hidden depths beneath the surface of things.
Pictures of M. and Other Pictures is Michael Hilsman’s first solo show with Almine Rech gallery in New York. Running until 23 February 2019.