What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

April 20, 2023

Michael Hilsman
Man In Water
Various Small Fires
March 25 - April 29, 2023

Michael Hilsman

Michael Hilsman's paintings are quirky and somewhat disorientating. Many of the works feature a central character— based on the artist himself— that is often obscured or covered, as in Man With Face In Book (all works 2023). In this small-scale painting, Hilsman presents a close-up of a head in profile. The balding, bearded man's face is hidden by a book with a red-orange cover and decorated with two flowers and a box of matches. In Man With Cutlery And Citrus, a similar sized painting, the bald man's profile faces the opposite direction, but this time it is draped by dangling vines with oranges and floating cutlery (a red handled knife and fork). Roughly centered in both paintings and taking up a third of the composition, is the man's ear, although it is neither paintings focus.

Among the larger works are Man With Book in Landscape and Man Touching Thorn, both spanning 78 x 114 inches. For Man Touching Thorn, Hilsman depicts a white t-shirt, blue-jeans wearing figure from the side. He is positioned behind and partially obscured by flowering cacti. All of this is set against a blotchy blue background (representing the sky) and a thin strip of brown (referencing the earth or soil) that hugs the bottom of the canvas. Although both the man and the plants are rendered in flat tones with few details, they come across as more realistic than abstract. The man extends his arm out horizontally pushing one finger from his oversized hand into one of the thorns of a cactus. At this intersection, a blood-shaped tear appears. The cacti are flowering and in the prime of their life, yet the man's expression is never revealed. The fact that he is touching a thorn makes his relationship to the plants curious and ambiguous.

Man With Book in Landscape is similarly obtuse. In this painting, Hilsman divides the composition in two. The narrower upper portion of the image is filled with a mountain landscape painted in brown and green hues. Below is an expanse of deep blue that covers the bottom two thirds of the canvas. On top of this blue expanse floats a male figure: his face is covered by a red book, his feet extend out from what appears to be a long white sheet draped over the figure to become a quasi table. Carefully laid out on the sheet are an array of objects including a pistol, a vase of flowers, plates of fruit, a single black glove, an animal skull, as well as three playing cards. The arrangement feels like it could be the figure's last meal, or some gesture before departing into the blue void.

Hilsman's paintings illustrate unsettling narratives. The works while physical are also metaphysical — theatrical, dream-like and absurd while simultaneously grounded in reality. In most of the paintings, the figure's head is masked. In Man With Roses the same man carries a bouquet of red roses in his hands so they obscure his eyes and mouth but not his complete face. His right leg is bent behind him and parallels the ground, his black shoe points straight down and just touches the green floor as if resting on a shelf. Surrounding him is an orange dial telephone, a scissors, numerous teeth and three sunflowers that enter the composition from the top. Again, the elements are evocative and suggestive but do not add up to any logical conclusion.

Hilsman's paintings pose questions that cannot be answered. They invite viewers to contemplate how the elements in the still lives and landscapes come together to form a greater narrative about the ambiguous man and his relationship to what surrounds him.