Chicago

Mike Hill

Feigen, Incorporated

In his recent work, Mike Hill reshapes plaster commemorative portrait busts and reperforates U.S. postage stamps honoring famous Americans, in order to examine the mechanisms of fame and iconization. He asks why and how society and its agencies choose to exalt a few from among the many, literally undercutting and exposing the cult of celebrity and unmasking some of its characteristic inanities. His is an art of subtle abrasion and emendation; in both of his bodies of work he takes representations of the famous and alters them, subjecting their surfaces to treatments that pervert their aura without entirely diffusing their stature.

Take, for example, the memorial plaster portrait bust. Hill casts the heads of Dante, Longfellow, Lincoln, Emerson, Washington, and a series of classical composers and slices and dices them variously. Hill cleaves George Washington’s impassive and thoughtful head into five equal vertical sections and separates them from one another with sheets of Plexiglas; more a reempowerment than an act of violence, this formal division fans out Washington’s visage in multiple volumes. Hill usually busts these busts up by forcing them into a confined context where they can never fully fit. In Untitled (Dante), 1991, Hill shaves away the substance of the poet’s face in order to squeeze him into a tight glass vitrine. Thus, the physiognomy of Dante’s head becomes less significant than the sacrosanctity of his presentation; Hill argues that it is not the genius of the poet that is at the center of this enterprise but the let-us-now-praise-famous-men urge that led to this extolment. Hill is intrigued by the persistence and the paucity of our hero worship and its manifestation in these blank white cyphers. In Untitled (Longfellow), 1990, the Plexiglas sheath is so restrictive that Hill had to carve the poet’s entire face away; it is not important that it be readable, for Hill knows that the poet’s name and the aura of its representation will carry more iconic weight than would his actual appearance. It is part of the charge of Hill’s work that his subjects retain an extraordinary amount of psychic dignity, surviving both bourgeois enshrinement and his own assault.

In his postage-stamp pieces, Hill places two or three sheets of U.S. stamps that bear grisaille portraits of celebrated Americans atop one another under Plexiglas sheets, and then painstakingly perforates each layer. Hill varies the pattern of perforation from stamp to stamp—some have as few as one added hole, while others are riddled with as many as 19 perforations. More or less dense, these interventions reveal different attributes of the sheets resting beneath the top one. Some have odd composite faces; in one Mary Lyon, Sitting Bull, and Red Cloud congeal into an androgynous conglomerate of settler and native, while others play with denominational numbers and names. But this employ of pattern and perforation is just the form Hill’s assault takes; scanning these images reveals everywhere his ruminations on the dictates of historical aggrandizement.

James Yood