by Gracie Pratt
Photography by Tina Gionis
“I don’t reject a form just because it’s not something I do. I’m always up for an experiment.”
When artist Saul Gray-Hildenbrand was newly graduated after getting his art degree, he began to work on what he now calls a series of “dictionary pieces.” He would scan a page of words and their definitions and land on a single one—list, lint, lunatic—and begin drawing on the page itself, sometimes blacking out all other words to illuminate a single one. Today, Gray-Hildenbrand has nearly 600 pieces made of dictionary pages, a testament to his unconventional representation of language, ideas, and objects and his tenacity as an artist.
Inspired by Lucio Fontana, an Italian artist who would “slice into his canvas and break the dimension of a painting,” Gray-Hildenbrand explores painting as an object, not just a medium. If he can remove an object from its typical context and turn it on its head, Gray-Hildenbrand won’t pass up the opportunity.
A panel covered in white hand-painted chips contains more than meets the eye in Whitenest. A clear example of Gray-Hildenbrand’s delight in surprising and stunning his audience, this piece contains both a figurative and literal screaming man painted under the layers. The man is eerily invisible, yet the title’s allusion to his existence gives him a presence stronger than a portrait.
Gray-Hildenbrand calls his studio his “laboratory,” valuing the experimentation that comes with creating art. As he said, “I don’t reject a form just because it’s not something I do. I’m always up for an experiment.” Thus, it is not surprising that his work is diverse, ranging from sculpted figures and faces to full-scale murals of sea creatures.
This attitude of freedom about his work prompts him to recognize a variety of interpretations about his pieces, and he welcomes the opportunity to see how an individual’s psyche plays into the process of ascribing meaning. When crafting a sculpture piece for a hospice patient, Gray-Hildenbrand titled it Gathering Storms, viewing the tiny ceramic homes fixed on the white panel as symbols of isolation. However, when a hospice worker viewed the work she had a different interpretation altogether. The homes were “expanding out,” taking on uncharted territory as they radiated out of the center, offering hope.
Thrilled by this interpretation, the artist has found additional meaning in the work, for, as he explains, “the psychology of the person viewing the piece is what completes the story.”
Another personal piece for Gray-Hildenbrand is a large untitled work featuring a colorful display of matches on a black panel. When his wife’s grandfather passed away, they received a portion of his lifelong match collection. Gray-Hildenbrand wanted the matches to be inaccessible to his young son but also pay tribute to the memory of his wife’s grandfather. Thus, a work of art was born: a vivid kaleidoscope emerging from the dark backdrop.
Gray-Hildenbrand’s work straddles a fine line between minimalism and folk art, complicated even further by the inclusion of gothic humor. Dark but never depressing, Gray-Hildenbrand sets himself apart in his ability to turn the tables on preconceptions about what art is and isn’t.
You can view the work of Saul Gray-Hildenbrand at Bennett Galleries, located at 2104 Crestmoor Road in Nashville. Gallery hours are Monday–Friday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, please visit www.bennettgalleriesnashville.com.