New York

Hardy Hill, 2 Figures, 1 Sleeping 1 (Sleep 4), 2021, plate lithograph on cotton rag paper, 14 1⁄4 × 18 1⁄4".

Hardy Hill, 2 Figures, 1 Sleeping 1 (Sleep 4), 2021, plate lithograph on cotton rag paper, 14 1⁄4 × 18 1⁄4".

Hardy Hill

There were many naked young men, rendered with astonishing craftsmanship, in Hardy Hill’s solo exhibition “Almost Blind Like a Camera.” But they were not exactly exciting. The majority of Hill’s taut figures seem to be all limbs, posed at rigid angles and connected to handsome bodies that are fascistically fit, as if they were athletes from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary film Olympia (1938). The kouroi are sanitized, two-dimensional, with barely a trace of sensuality or selfhood—blank slates onto which viewers can project their own idyllic (or perverse) fantasies of tender play.

Still, a certain Ernst Lubitsch–like touch inflects these firm bodies and their austere settings, which appeared throughout ten framed black-and-white lithographs on cotton rag paper—many of them adumbrated with drypoint—along with a selection of similarly hued photographs and paper cutouts placed inside vitrines. In one of the litho prints a man leaned into the glass door of what could have been a corporate atrium entryway (Figure in Vestibule, 2021), while in another an ephebe was pawed by a pair of muscly conspirators (3 Figures in Doorway [Examination 3; Theater 5], 2021); elsewhere, a male form lay on a table, seemingly offering himself up for dissection (3 Figures, 2 in Diagnostic Posture, 2021). A group of photographs featured actual paper dolls, which presumably served as models for the lithographs. The figures had been captured in close-up and appeared with a variety of props (the artist’s hand, a pair of scissors). In a number of these images, the dolls gazed at themselves in a mirror as Hill snapped them from behind, his camera lens visible in the reflection. These tableaux called to mind the “Cottingley Fairies” photos of 1917 and nineteenth-century spirit photography. They also seemed informed by the art of Duane Michals, whose technique was once described by Dennis Cooper in this magazine as “the heating up of an inherently chilly medium (black-and-white photography) with elements from a cozier one (the fairy tale).” Yet for all their classicism Hill’s paeans to frustrated homoerotic desire and corrupted romance felt assuredly modern, or perhaps alternatively modernist, as the artist provides just enough information to grab our attention with scenes left intentionally and tactically ambiguous, taking refuge in the timeless values of classical art but not entirely following its scripted codes of description, narrative, or devotion.

The most intriguing pieces were the lithographs 2 Figures, 1 Sleeping 1 (Sleep 4), and 2 Figures, 1 Sleeping 2 (Sleep 4), both 2021, each of which depicts a man crouching over another, trying to wake his companion, whose eyes are wide open and staring blankly into space. Unlike the other works on display, with their overdetermined facture and hard lines, these images feature a hazier focus, offering us more room for entry. The feeling of disquiet is heightened by the curious architectural appendage in the upper-right corner of the low-ceilinged shelter where the men are situated—though it could be as banal as a light fixture or a jerry-rigged loft bed, for me it suggested a cave or a biblical tomb. The figures—one hesitates to use the term lovers—seem interred in their own separate worlds, despite one of them having an obvious desire for contact. An attempt at communication is made, but the effort is fruitless—and the results are chilly. The same might be said of Hill’s neutered ascetic universe, which ultimately fails to usher the viewer into the artist’s fanciful realm. The disavowal of sexuality is, in the end, a political disavowal, one that both collapses and heightens the dialectic between the profane and the sacred, the known and the unknown, the initiated and the innocent. If there is a drama in these works, it surfaces in the triangulation of tension, fatalism, and a longing for transcendence. Hill’s mannequins seem to know the world is in despair, but don’t appear terribly concerned, opting instead for an affect of withholding self-erasure.