Tyler Hildebrand Takes the Lumberjack Road
David Lusk Gallery • May 6
“I use my characters and archetypes as metaphors for violence, addictions, the disenfranchised, or the depraved.”
by Daniel Tidwell
It’s hard to predict what the motley cast of characters in Tyler Hildebrand’s vivid, no-holds-barred paintings will do next. Some writhe across the canvas in various states of undress—like degenerate odalisques, others lumber about to unknowable ends, while others brawl in bloody melees, the cause or point of which remains elusive.
It’s as if Hildebrand has demilitarized Leon Golub’s monumental figures and set them loose across his canvases—to borrow a phrase from Gus Van Sant, to “twist . . . like an antic fried chicken wing.” And like the Harmony Korine film Gummo that Van Sant was referring to, Hildebrand’s work revels in the seamy underbelly of contemporary America—taking an unflinching look at the harsh realities of a debauched demimonde that is all but invisible to mainstream society. “I use my characters and archetypes as metaphors for violence, addictions, the disenfranchised, or the depraved,” says Hildebrand. “Sometimes I portray it more indirectly, and sometimes it’s in your face.”
Hildebrand’s relationship to debased and marginalized culture developed at an early age. “My father was a Cincinnati cop, and my mother was a crime reporter for the local news station,” according to the artist. “They met at the scene of a murder . . . and would come home from work with stories of murders and fights and shootouts—characters both good and bad. It was intriguing to me and exciting in a weird way.”
The true crime stories he heard at home were a powerful influence, instilling a deep, personal connection to his often-violent subject matter and giving birth to the rough, unsavory characters that populate his paintings. “I was recently looking through a box of my childhood drawings,” says Hildebrand. “Many of these works were elaborate, graphic drawings of the Alamo and Civil War battle scenes. I was amazed at how I am still interested in many of the same subjects, just through a different lens.”
Hildebrand’s painting process strikes a balance between his conceptual framework and the formal constraints of the picture plane. “If there is no idea…it falls flat, and if the formal, compositional stuff doesn’t work, then it’s not interesting enough for anyone to care about. Probably about 80 percent of the time that I start a piece with an idea in mind . . . it takes a totally different turn. I will work and rework a piece . . . leaving some of the process and mistakes. A lot of times that’s the most interesting part.”
Working on a large scale informs many of the compositional choices that the artist makes in his paintings, including his use of large color fields and unexpected color palettes.
In the painting Victory or Death, Hildebrand depicts Davy Crockett walking a tiger, machine gun in hand, firing at bloodied Mexican soldiers. The violence of the image is offset by the expansive light-pink field that Crockett struts across, while rainbow stripes in the background add another visual twist. For Hildebrand, these unexpected elements provide a different perspective on the violence he portrays and “enhance the uneasiness that already exists within the image . . . throwing everything off, in a good way.”
Hildebrand works almost exclusively with house paint, lending the surface of his work a unique physicality. “I started doing that when the scale of my paintings grew past eight feet,” he says. “It was the only thing I could afford, but as I began to work with it, I liked the different sheens—satin, semi-gloss. I like to mix them up throughout the painting” to make elements really pop.
Some of Hildebrand’s major artistic influences include Paul McCarthy, Ed Kienholz, and Martin Kippenberger along with Harmony Korine and Johnny Cash. But one of his most important early influences was Cincinnati Enquirer editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman. “I studied how he captured likenesses, how he weaved narratives, and how he utilized the art of subtle metaphors. It’s not only how I learned about art, but really how I learned about the events and politics of the world at a very young age.”
In the same way that an editorial cartoonist draws from topical events, Hildebrand’s cast of characters has morphed along with his own experiences and evolved into metaphorical locations where his cast of personalities act out their fictional narratives. Mohawk Blvd., named after a gritty side street in Cincinnati, is home to many of the eccentrics in his previous work.
My new show, Lumberjack Road, is a different kind of Mohawk Blvd.,” says Hildebrand. “It’s influenced by my time here in Nashville, more specifically Donelson. I am always interested in my surroundings. I soak it up and feed off of it.
Ultimately Hildebrand’s work is coming from a wild and intuitive place, confronting the status quo with aggressive imagery and biting satire. “My work is more visceral than intellectual,” says the artist. “It always has been, and it always will be. At the same time there are layers of social and political commentary throughout the works, and you can choose to go as deep or as surface level as you want.”
See Tyler Hildebrand’s Lumberjack Road at David Lusk Gallery May 6 through 30. Visit www.davidluskgallery.com for more information.