Los Angeles

Dennis Hilger

Dushane Gallery

Dennis Hilger’s exhibition of 20 richly ornamented paintings, almost all from 1987, was entitled “Ancient Memories,” evoking Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings and pursuing a similar course of fantasy and history. (He even uses the title Ancient Evenings for one of the paintings.) Hilger’s work suggests artifacts of a cult of luxury, dreams, and death through an iconography playfully borrowed from the art of ancient Egypt. Seen here in this Sunset Boulevard gallery, the paintings mirrored the seductive treasures found beyond the gallery doors. Rivers of lapis lazuli and rivulets of rose madder spill across the sand-textured planes of these abstract landscapes, while a lake of emerald pigment, as in Celestial Waters, flickers with silica chips. These “celestial waters” are free from the bitter ironies of contemporary life but not from the larger ironies wrought by time, physical transformation, and extinction.

Hilger’s work evokes the emotions sometimes experienced by visitors to museums of ancient art, in which the opulent artifacts of ancient cultures suggest a temporary and fragile victory over mortality and the inevitable extinction of each culture as a living entity. They also help explain why some of us have a deep attraction for levels of sensual beauty devoid of use but, as is true of Hilger’s paintings, not devoid of meaning.

The new works are broadly abstract, with crude houses, animals, mountains, trees, pyramids, and moons strewn across heavily constructed surfaces. Even with their strange encrustations, the best have a simplicity and power reminiscent of Arthur Dove’s late work. In many of the paintings, a circular disk of dully patinated silver becomes a distant moon. Deep pools of light and material are built up by layering translucent pigments filled with shiny particles. Such substances are as suspect as the gaudy displays out on the boulevard, but Hilger’s intensity of focus and feeling are so strong that they become major elements in the tale he tells here, players in a drama of time, memory, and death. He also makes use of familiar Modernist devices such as high horizon lines and shifts of perspective and scale, which allow the viewer to drift and dream while traversing monuments and deserts, following the course of rivers and the transition from night to day. The sad, resonant beauty of these paintings may also reflect Hilger’s own battle with serious illness. With one of the larger themes of art and history made his own in real life, Hilger is able to imbue a borrowed historical theme with authentic emotional intensity.

Susan Larsen