From its vaguely sinister, Biblical title, to the sublime kitsch of its theatrical contents, an antic intelligence was at work in Stephen Hilyard’s show “Yours is the Earth”. For the viewer who asked for neither mercy nor explanation, it was a rewarding tour of such ideas of the Western canon as the sublime, national character, and aestheticism. Yet for those not already versed in these ideas, the show might have read more as a confusing hodgepodge.
The exhibit consisted of three parts. The first of these, a collection of miscellaneous sculptural artifacts, is thickly invested with clues and associations regarding European political and cultural history. Fully loaded semiotic devices, these objects range from woodcarving to needlepoint, and are sure to be relished by anyone with the informational context necessary to read them.
The Dilemma of Europe
For instance, The Dilemma of Europe, an acanthus leaf motif carved in mahogany, refers to the long history of this image and its dissemination throughout Europe via military and cultural hegemony (originating on Corinthian columns and ending up used by Norwegian folk painters who’d never seen a live acanthus, this motif followed conquest through Europe). A painfully precise yet leaden wooden rose, A Rebours , suggests the idea of the artificial sublime popularized by the French writer Huysmans in his book of the same title, while a needlepoint wolf head titled Savoir Vivre brings up Albert Camus and all that nausea. (Through titles, Hilyard leaves find-it-yourself clues for the well-read viewers - for example, if you’ve read Camus you know that “savoir vivre” denotes one of his central concepts.) The information necessary to fully read these artifacts must be drawn from knowledge Hilyard seems to assume viewers posses; the work’s meaning are only hinted at through titles and other bits of evidence such as texts within the works or stylistic details.
The second part of the show, a free standing installation called Inconsolable , is a collection of diverse objects and texts; a quilt and a vaguely narrative computer animation, both depicting the Inconsolable Range in the Rocky Mountains; a photograph of the Austrian composer Alban Berg (whose surname means “mountain”) as a youth, with a recording of one of Berg’s pieces; and a nicely printed, glossy booklet full of erudite, inextricably entwined stories and histories that swirl around notions of mountains, Berg, the sublime, Modernism, and America. The Albert Bierstadt-style mountain displayed on the quilt functions as the nodal point of the connection between “America” and “the sublime”, while the booklet’s main story of a crusty old prospector, his lost lode, and his quilt making daughter is pure fiction, despite Hilyard’s portraits of these folksy characters. The installation is quite formal, a jest on the traditional idea of the museum that owes a certain debt to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, Hilyard’s previous home (though he is English, which gives his view of America a slight, appealing, estrangement.)
Inconsolable’s pastiche balances on the knife edge between sublimity and kitsch - between a high-minded longing for the perfect object of desire and a lowbrow substitution of a cheaper, attainable version of same. The crispness and polish of the installation’s components make one’s self-guided discovery of the mélange of fictions amid the improbably truths more delightful, suggesting that the evidence for lies is just as materially convincing as the evidence for truth. This is an interesting credo for an artist, who is after all the ultimate artificer.
50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast
(Queen of Peace)
Finally, in the third part of the show Hilyard presented a collection of photographs of a famed British battleship, assembled into a beautifully bound and presented book. 50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast was probably the most approachable aspect of the show. The huge scale of the ship, it’s lonely grandeur and unpeopled expanses, and it’s portrayal against the red sunsets or sullen pewter light of ambivalent apotheosis, all evoke a familiar but exaggerated war-film pathos. The photos are accompanied by brilliant captions listing the many names of the Virgin Mary, like “Morning Star” and “Mother Most Admirable”, through which the battleship becomes a body that serves as a vessel, again, for the sublime. The battleship image is a dually gendered: stereotypically male guns and aggression versus the habit of ascribing female names, and perhaps stereotypically female virtues like loyalty and subservience, to ships. This mock-epic marriage bears an oddly touching undercurrent of real longing. While the show raised far too many issues of ideology, politics and their relation to the aesthetic to cover here, it nonetheless offered an enjoyable experience to viewers equipped with the information necessary to read it. The show was both engaged with dense ideas and mocking of its own engagement, both funny and on some level tragically in earnest.
New Art Examiner