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Visual Poetics: David Hilliard’s Photographic Tale at Carroll and Sons Gallery

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David Hilliard
The Tale is True (DH237) from A Tale is True 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston.

It’s only right that The Tale is True come to Boston’s Carroll and Sons Gallery. I’ve been waiting. I first saw David Hilliard’s exhibition when it opened at Yancey Richardson in Manhattan. While he is undoubtedly an internationally recognized artist, a known figure on the New York art scene, Hilliard is also our own lifelong local. A natural storyteller with an intuitive eye for composition, Hilliard has a seafaring tale to tell of an epic (and I mean that literally) Cape Cod family. We were there for the opening in the art-rich Chelsea neighborhood, two in an ever-changing crowd of thirty or so who arrived early on the scene to greet the artist.

If you don’t know Hilliard, you should. Hilliard’s an easily approachable artist and happy to entertain (endless) questions about his work. And that work is something both classically composed and so unlike much of the highly abstract or overly academic photography we see far too often these days. Hilliard’s appreciation for beauty and narrative is refreshing. When asked about his inspiration for this most recent exhibition, he is more likely to mention writers such as Russell Banks and Raymond Carver than his photo idols. And with good reason: The Tale is True is a kind of visual poetry.

The ten photographs on display tell the story of a father and son and the familial and historical inn they keep (or seemingly do not keep, as their house is in a state of disrepair verging on collapse). Being of the overly analytical sort, I immediately sought to analyze them, an approach I soon found wasn’t entirely suited to Hilliard’s imagery. I confess that I read the state of the house as a visual metaphor for the state of mind of both father and son. They’re an eccentric duo who, while brilliant I’m told, are unwinding. The father combs the beaches of Cape Cod on his bicycle, riding through wet sand, picking up abandoned objects and ferrying them away in his basket. He’s an irrepressible hoarder, and his son appears to be following in his footsteps. But Hilliard is quick to point out that both father and son are also shown in their element reading stories of heroic seafarers. They are wise (and MIT-educated), but that doesn’t mean they will fix the foundations of their own house any time soon.

David Hilliard
Wiser Than Despair (DH245) from A Tale is True 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston.

I’ve realized it’s dangerous to be too analytical with this work. Hilliard’s approach is more subtle, and he prefers visual metaphors: a kind of lyrical quality composed of light, open doors and windows looking out onto the open ocean, carved statues of fisherman, old seafaring books, and perhaps most importantly, splintered ship models and American School paintings of ships tossed at sea. The heroic spirit and the inevitability of fate are intertwined in that Cape Cod house and its 19th century New England decor. Hilliard calls his style environmental portraiture a la August Sander. I like to think of it as psychological portraiture as well, surpassing both straight portraits of so-called fixed identities and classical landscapes that change very little, and more slowly in photography than the natural world. In Hilliard’s work, meaning is slippery, shifting with the slightest change in mood. The terrain is that of human emotion, as temperamental as New England weather.

So don’t miss The Tale is True, now that it is on view in Boston through May 25. It’s an exhibition with a lot to say. For me, those weather-beaten boats photographed so eloquently are representative of father and son, both trying to navigate their way through troubled waters. For Hilliard, my guess is that the pair are more likely envisioned as heroic sea captains. In my view, they are lost at sea in their minds. But in yours, they may be simply charting a new course. Poetic interpretation is as open as the ocean—and that’s especially true of the tale that’s true.


David Hilliard: The Tale is True is on view at Carroll and Sons Gallery until May 25, 2013.

In the interest of full disclosure, the writer is currently conducting an independent study with David Hilliard.

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About Author

Robyn Day is a Boston-based photographer and writer. She reviews photography exhibitions for Big Red & Shiny.

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