King Wave (Garden of Ascension)
Stephen Hilyard’s most recent work, King Wave, references the real world but does not depict it. Using photography as raw material, the artist employs digital manipulation to contrast divergent approaches to death, and in the process challenges notions of authenticity.
On the surface Stephen Hilyard’s photographic depictions of rearing waves and skies full of portent recall nineteenth century paintings of the sublime. Stranger things are brewing below. It is the stuff of legends: thirty-foot crocodiles in the sewers of New York, giant squids pulling sailors overboard and great white sharks decimating townsfolk. Bodies of water have long acted as a melting pot for human anxiety. Sigmund Freud used an iceberg protruding from the water as metaphor for consciousness, while the vast water surrounding it represented the unconsciousness made up of unacknowledged fears. To past monsters - real and imagined - can be added one more: The King Wave. Also known as freak waves, King Waves are enormous walls of water that seemingly come from out of the blue. For many years considered fictitious, these rogue waves have recently gained scientific credibility. One theory suggests that they steal energy from neighboring swells to produce near-vertical walls of water as high as one hundred feet and capable of sinking seafaring freighters. Hilyard’s King Wave series considers the mythologies surrounding death with images that beguile the mind and defy logic.
King Wave (Garden of Ascension): Detail
In King Wave, five large (6’) images of waves in Western Australia have been paired with smaller (6”) views of cemetery curbstones. Both reference human demise: His images of waves were photographed at Cape Naturaliste, a site of recent King Wave fatalities, while his curbstones were photographed at a memorial park in Southern California, a cemetery that eschews tombstones in favor of burial plots set among rolling lawns, statuary, fountains and memorial architecture. In spite of their common referent, Hilyard’s waves and curbstones address truth in imagery while engaging in a visual and conceptual standoff.
In an age of digital manipulation the expression “you can’t believe your eyes” has taken on new meaning. In December of 2004 an underwater earthquake resulted in a tsunami crashing upon the shores of Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka killing tens of thousands of people. A particularly graphic image of the wave cresting above the Thai island of Phuket circulated widely on the web before it could be pronounced a fake. If the event was tragically real, visual documentation of it was anything but.
Shot with a handheld camera, Hilyard’s markedly enlarged photographs of waves, with their visible grain, seem to flaunt honest origins. They are beautiful lies to behold. Hilyard skillfully stretched the truth by elongating his waves vertically - thereby adding literal height to an already tall tale. He also mirrored them to create wide format images, subsequently altering the resulting symmetry at the interior of his picture. The color manipulation of sky and sea results in pronounced striations that bring to mind color field painting. His image flirts with realism, but ultimately abandons it for artful deception.
King Wave (Slumberland): Detail
Hilyard’s heavily manipulated images of curbstones adopt a boudoir style with soft-focus lettering that romanticizes death. Whereas Hilyard sought to disrupt perfect symmetry within his wave imagery, here he balances his compositions by doubling elements: discreetly placed pairs of pebbles, leaves and concrete joints are tell-tale signs that Hilyard has used unnatural means to produce his portrait. In adding or subtracting components within his picture to create perfectly proportioned compositions, he levels the playing field between fact and fiction.
King Wave subverts the idea of the photograph as an index of veracity. His work also offers strong commentary on contemporary approaches to mortality by contrasting the theatricality of the sublime with the banality of death.
The nineteenth century definition of sublime was closely aligned with the terrible power of God as reflected in nature. The sublime inspired awe and dread in viewers who, sensing nature’s enduring grandeur, were made acutely aware of their own mortality. Historically, mortality has been conceptually held at bay with promises of an afterlife. Death becomes exponentially less frightening when translated as life everlasting.
Hilyard’s curbstones evoke the hereafter in his titles. Haven of Peace, Garden of Ascension, Resthaven, Slumberland, and Resurrection Slope are actual geographic sites within the memorial park. As curbstones, they are also well below eye level. Glorification of death, it would seem, is easier said (or read) than done. As signage placed in the gutter these indicators of heavenly retreat are also home to flowing filth. Hilyard has captured a heaven on earth - but it is far from divine.
If his curbstones suggest a futile attempt to transform death’s banality into a majestic event, his waves emphasize the inherent difficulty in trying to one-up Mother Nature. His waves ascend to abnormal heights, endowed with supernatural power, while his images of curbstones at ground level remain quite literally concrete. The poetic devices of his curbstones fail to convince, whereas his depictions of raging nature make their case wordlessly and are unequivocally victorious.
In The Painter of Modern Life Charles Baudelaire praised artifice over nature. The poet urged his readers to regard such deceptions as “a sublime deformation of nature, or rather a permanent and repeated attempt at her reformation.” With the advent of the computer age the dividing line between fact and fiction is not merely blurred: digital manipulation allows them to virtually become one and the same. A picture might say a thousand words - but are they to be believed? Poet and critic Henri Frederic Amiel spoke of truth in the singular, stating that it “is the highest summit of art and life.” King Wave presents a truth of many facets, in which the marriage of formal means and contrasting philosophical beliefs result in a synergistic representation that is unquestionably a sign of the times.
Suzanne Beal is an art critic and freelance curator based in Seattle.