Willard Hill at The Good Luck Gallery
Through October 14
By Shana Nys Dambrot
The Good Luck Gallery is L.A.’s only outlet dedicated to Outsider Art, a genre long valued by a dedicated niche of collectors and curators which has been gaining more widespread attention in recent years. Perhaps prompted by a general cultural thirst for an energy of authenticity, there’s a growing taste for works that exist in counterpoint to mainstream art history and don’t mess with the slickness of the hip. Audiences are understandably drawn to the Outsider genre’s fearlessness in self-expression, spontaneity in imagination, unconventionality of materials, and frequently artist’s own compelling, unconventional story and personality.
Willard Hill of Manchester, Tennessee, b. 1934, checks all those boxes and then some with his irresistible mixed media sculptures and tableaux, in which he depicts familiar, if eccentric figures from the South he remembers. People are seen fishing, traveling by donkey cart, amateur boxing, tending the farm, playing music on the porch, minding pets and children, and occasionally donning their Sunday best. Animals and architecture figure prominently as well — and lately that has meant fish. In some scenes the fish are wild caught; in the most charming and oddly unsettling works in the show, the fish — fish heads, actually — are life-size. Because they used to be alive. In these works, Hill preserves the skulls of the fish he’s caught (and often shared with his neighbors) and uses them as the armature for a series of quasi-portraits of the fish they once were, or perhaps the fish they always wanted to be.
As with all his sculptures, despite the sensational reality of the fishbone as a studio material, and the addition of wires, plastic, wig fibers, toothpicks, magic marker, paint, glue and just whatever else is around, the star of Hill’s studio practice is the masking tape. More than a primary material, masking tape is almost a muse for the artist. Building it in laters, pressing it into rough contours, tugging it to elongate, squeezing to flatten, letting it harden for structure, and eventually painting and coloring it like a canvas. It could be clay, or plasticine, or even papier-mache, and there are qualities of all three in the results; but at the same time, it must be masking tape, because the intuitive elevation of marginal materials is the central dynamic of his aesthetic. Key to the strange almost grotesque beauty and humor of the work is that the humble materials remain at all times prominent.
The imagery itself poses some intriguing questions. On the one hand, there is a classic sensibility familiar to lovers of folk art, one of exaggerated features, stylized quirks in anatomy, regional costume, and a saturated palette. Because the people in the images are all African American, these exaggerations flirt with an uncomfortable cultural place when viewed in the rarefied setting of a distant art gallery. Not that this is a bad thing! It in no way lessens the pure, exuberant aesthetic pleasure of the works, to be simultaneously forced to confront issues of identity, race, generation, context, assumptions, and expectations. In fact it lends the entire experience a lingering depth, communicating unexpectedly pointed issues in the guise of folksy storytelling. Besides the appeal of the style, and the unpacking of the meaning, the whole is animated by the restless, prolific energy of the artist’s creative instinct, which is felt in every inch of the works, over which he has endlessly run his fingers, building them with obsessive patience, before adding gold, hot pink, and fish hats. It’s unforgettable work, both to see and to contemplate.
The Good Luck Gallery