New York

John Hilliard

Bess Cutler Gallery

John Hilliard’s images are evocative, sometimes enigmatic, and frequently suggestive, in the sense of the gamut of meanings that may be culled from their sexual root, ranging from the sensual and erotic to the overtly sexist. During the ’70s, the subject of his investigations was the structural analysis of photography by means of images, a project he shared with many others. In his work, Hilliard exploits the language of photography, self-consciously manipulating and distending its technical and structural characteristics to extend and complicate the metaphoric narratives that he relates.

Hilliard’s images often seem enveloped in an atmospheric haze that lends them a romantic atmosphere. It is produced when the high-resolution photographs he takes are softened and generalized after being translated into a pixellated system by computer and then transferred by means of computer-controlled sprays of ink onto canvas. Through this latter-day alchemical transformation, a technical distortion adds another layer of visual meaning to his set-up stories.

There is also an alchemical aspect to Hilliard’s iconography, evoked through his frequent use of inversion and doubling. A work entitled 1961, done in 1987, consists of a doubled image of a woman’s head, shown rightside up on the left and upside down on the right. The woman’s face is cropped below her uplifted eyes, which are spotlit and surrounded by darkness, creating the effect of a mask. Because the top and bottom edges of the “mask” are almost identical, her splayed hairdo and upward glance seem to be transformed in the inverted image so that we see the bearded chin of a downward-gazing male. This, together with the title—which also contains an inverted doubling (“19” and “61” being inverted mirror images of one another)—suggest both yin-yang and a double entendre with sexual innuendoes. Here is a “male/female” pair locked in head-to-toe embrace, like a double helix in a spiral of infinite regress, a metaphoric structure that appears throughout Hilliard’s work. East/West, 1985, shows the profile and bare shoulders of a black woman made up to appear blanched and white, wearing a black wig and false eyelashes and smoking a cigarette. This image is paired with its mirror-image double, printed in negative, which gives the illusion of her being a black model in a white wig. The two images are aligned face to face, cigarette tip to cigarette tip, creating a fantasy image of female homoerotica: through photochemical alchemy Hilliard shows woman as a seductive, glamorous witch. In Red Light, 1981, he uses doubling to equate a shot of an underwear-clad woman with the sign of a prostitute. The upper panel of this double-panel work shows only a bare light bulb casting a red glow in a black void, with the image behind it all a red blur. In the lower panel, the light bulb is photographed swinging on its cord; the camera focuses on the image behind the light, which is revealed to be a supine, underwear-clad model, while the moving light appears only as an illuminated red-and-yellow slash across her body. Tempo, 1983, utilizes the same technical strategy, the camera focusing first on one, then on another element in the setup tableau—in this case, a scantily clad woman pulling on a stocking in the background and an older man in a rocking chair in the foreground—each one a rapidly moving blur when the other is in focus. Here, a narrative is suggested in which different planes of reality function at different speeds. Who is fantasizing whom? The implication is that the woman may be no more than the man’s masturbatory reverie, a dream dreamed while rocking.

Hilliard uses photography’s potential to make visible what is to the naked eye often invisible, and thus to embody the repressed—usually, sexual feelings that he seems to equate with alchemy and black magic. While the meaning of his images is hard to pin down (which is not a bad thing), they share a thematic and stylistic consistency. Thus it is all the more inconsistent that the critical discourse surrounding Hilliard’s work seems to systematically deny his images and iconography, interpreting them almost solely in terms of a structural analysis of photography. This type of “structuralist” criticism does not deal with Hilliard’s thematic obsession with mediation as seamless prestidigitation or his attempt to create sublime representations of infinity and death. Such an obsession with the structure of signification to the exclusion of the signified eliminates the metaphoric, “tragic” aspects of his work. Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, 1872, posited the tragic as the embodiment of art, as something that would always defy a wholly rational explanation, the literal meaning of which would always somehow escape. The thematic basis of the tragic would be the “justification of human evil,” meaning “both human guilt and the human suffering it entails.” In eternal opposition to the tragic are the forces of esthetic Socratism, according to Nietzsche. Its motto: “To be beautiful everything must be intelligible.” Its prime practitioner: the “theoretical Man” who relishes only explicability and rationality—and, it might be added, perhaps a stiff dose of rigorous structural analysis—and on whose shores metaphoric tragedy is always doomed to be hopelessly wrecked.

Claudia Hart