Friday, May 6th, 2016

Originals: Amy Hill and the Kids of America

Amy Hill: Young and Innocent at Front Room Gallery

April 15 to May 22, 2016
147 Roebling St, between Hope Street and Metropolitan Avenue
Brooklyn, 718 782 2556

In his 1984 essay titled “On the Manner of Addressing Clouds,” an attack on the Modernist ideal of originality, Thomas McEvilley asserts that “post-Modern quoting is simply a process of bringing out into the open what all modes of expression do all the time anyway, but without usually bothering to acknowledge (or even realize) it.” Never mind that Modernist originality had always been something of a straw man; at a time when appropriation was a cutting-edge practice among artists — and a decade or so before the flood of imagery that washes over us via easy access to the Web — this pictorial strategy was ripe for theorizing. At the time, McEvilley could have had no idea how pervasive an activity quotation would become. Indeed, by now the adjective “original” has largely been shelved in favor of more modest claims, such as “fresh” or “idiosyncratic,” often awarded to works that recombine pre-existing sets of signifiers.

Amy Hill, Two Boys, 2016. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Amy Hill and Front Room Gallery
Amy Hill, Two Boys, 2016. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Amy Hill and Front Room Gallery

New York painter Amy Hill has developed a convincing, personal voice within this context of rampant quotation. Her current exhibition, “Young and Innocent,” features 16 modern-dress productions, in oil on canvas or wood, of those very stagey and stiff nineteenth-century American folk portraits in which children pose with various defining attributes of childhood, yet seem always to look so much older than their years. Funny and frightening, the show is a disconcerting delight.

Chief among Hill’s sources are itinerant portrait painters such as Joseph Goodhue Chandler, whose super weird Frederick Eugene Bennet (n.d) is, apparently, something of a touchstone for Hill. Absently tugging his long suffering dog’s ear, the little sister — still too young for pants — wears a crisp blue dress and dainty black shoes; he holds a pink lily (for the Victorians, a symbol of chastity) in his left hand, at precisely genital height.

Hill refers to this unsettling work in at least three paintings, including Girl with Lego Dog in which the painting’s main subject, now female, wears a skirt of a similar blue with an animé-emblazoned t-shirt, red Converse All Stars, a New Orleans Pelicans cap and a forearmful of temporary tattoos; the lily has become an iPod, and the pooch is made entirely of Lego bricks. Hill retains — in fact, she amplifies — the leafy shrub that frames the figure, the carpet-like lawn, the bizarrely discontinuous distant landscape comprising a verdant hillside on the right and a gleaming lake on the left, and, most conspicuously, the child’s disproportionately large head and affectless expression.

In Hill’s Two Boys a pair of tattooed youths dressed in leather jackets crouch behind the underbrush with an open laptop and a potted marijuana plant; in the background towers a glass-and-steel cityscape. They regard the viewer with vague suspicion and defiance. The overall composition, as well as boys’ poses, posture, spatial relationship, and facial expressions, reprise Brothers, an 1845 canvas by Susan Catherine Moore Waters, in which the key props are a big straw hat and a flowering wild rose; the vista, a bucolic pastureland. Hill captures the understated eagerness of Waters’ sitters to demonstrate that they are old enough to direct their self-presentation.

Amy Hill, Girl with Skooter, 2016. Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Amy Hill and Front Room Gallery
Amy Hill, Girl with Skooter, 2016. Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Amy Hill and Front Room Gallery

Hill is known for her witty reworkings of Flemish and Netherlandish portrait paintings, which are carried by her impeccable technique, mordant humor and deadpan delivery. Interestingly, many of the same compositional and narrative devices are often in play. Whether the early Americans were quoting Northern Renaissance painters is a question for a specialist, but it seems entirely possible in light of the period’s Renaissance Revival. (Or maybe the two contexts are merely homologous, and the common proclivity, for example, for three-quarter views of the head has no greater significance than the fact that it is a timeless challenge to paint an ear.)

Branding is significant even where it is sparse, as in Girl with Skooter. Against a backdrop of a riverside mill building (shades of old New England?) a young lady in red and her little charcoal-gray terrier pose before the girl’s two-wheeler; her eyes closed, she is transported to a purely sonic realm by means of her iPod. Her Minnie Mouse shoes, together with her dog’s Chanel collar tag, send an intentionally broad-based message having something favorably to do with the empowerment of women—Minnie was a flapper, after all, and Coco a self-made multibillionaire. Such is the semaphore system of conspicuous logo display.

In the same essay, McEvilley claims, “Quoting is an inevitable component in all acts of communication; it is what makes communication possible.” The precision of that message depends in part on mutual understanding of the material quoted, and Hill’s subjects are fluent in the nuanced language of the corporate identity, the public image, the mission statement, the celebrity endorsement. They know what’s cool, what used to be cool, what might next become cool. They define themselves by association therewith, through a hybridity of self-branding, as did their counterparts of an earlier era by means of a different but equally transparent vocabulary of symbols. By quoting the quoters, Hill views with a gimlet eye McEvilley’s “vast image bank of world culture” even as she signs on to it.

Amy Hill, Girl with Skooter, 2016. Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Amy Hill and Front Room Gallery
Girl with Lego