Hop hosts selection of Hilliard’s gritty, multi-paneled works
By Jane Reynolds, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 12, 2010
Studio art department artist-in-residence David Hilliard did not disappoint a packed Loew Auditorium on Tuesday afternoon when he introduced his exhibition “Highway of Thoughts.” Laughter staccatoed his lecture, which included Hilliard’s hilarious and often heartbreaking stories of his life growing up in rural Massachusetts as the gay son of long-divorced parents.
Hilliard, who received a master’s from the Yale University School of Art in 1994, has earned several awards — including a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright grant — for his photographs, which are characterized by their multi-panel or panoramic form and use of vibrant color and details, according to the artist’s web site.
The frankness of Hilliard’s life stories translates to his photographs in the exhibition, which focuses on his father, an ex-Navy atheist, and mother, a born-again Christian. “Highway of Thoughts” — on display in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery at the Hopkins Center through May 2 — includes 15 multi-paneled photographs taken over a span of 15 years.
Each piece provides viewers with intimate, sometimes voyeuristic glimpses of everyday moments, some of which are grittier than others.
In one photograph, “Hot Coffee, Soft Porn,” Hilliard portrays his father and uncles watching porn while drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
“I often show my own experience, but it may also relate to someone else’s life. We may not do this in particular, but we do something else that may raise some eyebrows,” Hilliard said during Tuesday’s lecture.
Capturing such intimate, everyday moments often relies on being prepared and, to a certain extent, luck.
“I often just have to show up with a camera,” Hilliard said.
According to Hilliard, his photographs often address the themes of family, identity and masculinity; the current exhibition takes advantage of the multi-paneled form to explore these issues. For example, in “Hulk” — a triptych that depicts a wife beater-clad redneck at a state fair — Hilliard juxtaposes the flexing man with an image of a blown-up Hulk doll in the left panel.
“With multiple panels, I can deal with still life, portraiture and landscape within one photograph — it’s really decadent in that way, and even with these individual moments there is a continuum,” Hilliard said. “It’s the way I’ve now chosen and my camera has multiple windows — to this day, I look to the right and the left and I want to build it out.”
Hilliard explained that he has recently begun to explore the theme of spirituality. Although the theme is already present in his current work — some photos in the exhibition focus on Hilliard’s mother’s spirituality — the artist said he hopes his time at Dartmouth will allow this interest to evolve.
“I’m beginning to make work where I’m starting to think about the spiritual self — spiritual in the way that it is whatever you need it to be to find your place in the world,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard also said he hopes to explore new subject matter while in Hanover. In addition to plans for a series of photographs of men knitting, Hilliard has contacted themed recreational parks in the area — including Santa’s Village, Storyland and Six Gun City.
“There’s something magical and a little sad about these ‘spectacles’ in the New England landscape. I’m looking forward to these pictures,” Hilliard wrote in an e-mail to The Dartmouth.
Along with his evolving thematic material, Hilliard said that his methodology for shooting his photographs has changed as well. Although Hilliard continues to use traditional film cameras for most of his shots, developing the negatives in a dark room, he has begun scanning some of his film in order to make and doctor digital prints. Altering the photos digitally — by adding in or accentuating different colors — allows him a greater degree of artistic flexibility.
“I like that a photograph can have a tone to it,” Hilliard said in his exhibit’s opening lecture.
“Highway of Thoughts” offers a broad look into Hilliard’s interests and style. From a portrait of his pregnant 19-year-old niece to a glimpse at his father’s notebook, Hilliard creates a well-rounded and charmingly real view of the images he encounters.
“In my work, I think about balance — resolved and unresolved, form and content, reality and fiction, film versus photography, the mundane versus something extraordinary,” Hilliard said.
Yet Hilliard made sure to relay that although he does not carry his camera with him on daily basis, the photographs he creates are often organic.
“When I have a preconceived notion of what I want and I nail it, it’s often disappointing because a little slippage is always good,” he said. “It’s those moments where your agenda hits the wall that it ends up being really magical.”
As this term’s artist-in-residence, Hilliard will host several classes on his exhibition, visit several classes in the studio art department. He will also hold studio office hours during which students may seek him out for advice and critiques, providing budding photographers with a chance to benefit from Hilliard’s contagious love for the medium.