“Imagination is greater than knowledge.” –Albert Einstein
“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.” –Frank Zappa
Willard Hill exhibits his exuberant mixed- media (mostly painted masking taped figures and animals) sculptures at The Good Luck Gallery. Hill was a sixty-two year old cook and avid fisherman who suddenly started making his objects as a way to rehabilitate himself after a hospital stay. He just grabbed whatever materials were around, such as masking tape, garbage bags and toothpicks. That was twenty years ago. Then two years ago, the 82 year-old Hill had his first solo art show at The Good Luck Gallery.
As with other untutored artist/makers, Hill is considered an “outsider artist,” which usually refers to those people who are not schooled in art — who do not come out of a folk tradition and who produce a consistent body of work, often later in life. A characteristic of those labeled outsider artists is that the work appears spontaneous, evolving in an organic, unplanned way, usually is figurative, sometime obsessive and produced in large volumes.
The gallery installation has nineteen smaller works situated on shelves that ring the three walls with the nine larger pieces right in the middle of the space on sculpture stands. On the west wall are two sculptures of small fantastical flying creatures reminiscent of the papier-mache folk art of Mexico. One is Untitled (WH221 flying bird red dots) 2016-18 mixed media/masking tape 9 x 7 x 11” and features the said bird with red mouth open, wings both parallel over the body, caught in mid stroke, just about to propel his jauntily painted self forward. This sense of frozen or impending motion is a hallmark of Hill’s work. The second small work, Untitled (WH 299 bird with fish in mouth) 2016-18 mixed media/masking tape 11 x 20 x 9.5,” does indeed have a rather triumphant, one might say beaming, bird with its multi-colored fish firmly in its beak. The bird’s wings are festooned with surprising painted patterns. This decoration not only evokes the skin of butterflies but also suggests the minute repeated patterns of beaded folk art pieces.
The most eccentric works here are the six small but peppy fish heads (and I do mean real fish heads) with festive hats and even sunglasses. These are happy fish heads, perhaps unaware that they have been captured and turned into inanimate albeit charming objects. One of Hill’s gifts as a sculptor is his ability to animate any object through cheerful color combinations, joyous patterning and sly exaggerations. Many of these masking tape sculptures involve the interaction between humans and animals as in the mythic Untitled (WH220 two figures riding catfish) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape, 11 x 15 x 21.” Two men are pulling each other while each is seated on a stump or a pail trying to unseat one another – kind of like a log-rolling contest. It’s a cheap but fun version of a carnival ride, as the men struggle with mock fear to keep their balance. This outsize catfish is the Moby Dick of the swamp.
Impending motion or forward activity is inherent in almost all of these works, however static they may seem at first. With both the Untitled (WH239 four figures carriage horse purple hats) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape 10 x 9 x 20,” and the Untitled (WH237 four figures in horse drawn carriage) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape, 9 x 8 x 17,” the action of moving forward has been temporarily halted. The passengers in both the horse and the donkey drawn carriages are dressed to the nines with fancy hats befitting the British Royal family. Dressing up for church is an ingrained African-American custom that is celebrated in these two works.
Some of the larger sculptures contain whole architectural structures or small groupings of buildings in a square or rectangular format. Untitled (WH238 house blue roof people animals) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape, 12 x 17 x 19.5” is a jam- packed scene that has a log cabin with a porch and various activities happening in, on and around the house. Too much action and activity in this case weakens the visual impact of this work. It starts to look like a cake with frosting melting. The Untitled (WH260 fenced yard with animal buildings) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape 9.5 x 14.5 x 15.5,” also suffers from Hill cramming too much into a small space. There are three houses, grass and barnyard animals cheek by jowl in this square shape. Hill is best when he gives his figures and animals space to move in and uses the negative shapes between them to highlight their interactions.
When Hill first began working twenty years ago, he said everything he made looked like a monkey, and so he continued to make them. Untitled (WH262 three monkeys fishing) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape 13 x 18 x 12,” uses the interstices between the various flailing limbs of said animals and their fishing rods to great effect. The work looks lively against the gallery wall, with the interplay of the white wall contrasting with the brown of the monkey’s limbs. The animals’ fishing rods stab into the space below the shelf, energizing the whole composition. Plus it’s a fun notion (that monkeys would be fishing with rods!)
Two of the largest pieces Untitled (WH242 man with mustache and instrument) 2016-2018 mixed media/masking tape 28 x 20 x 21,” and Untitled (WH236 Cowboy Orange Fringe Riding Horse) 2016-2018, mixed media/masking tape 21.5 x 11 x 12” are almost a pair — each has a figure in a feathered hat, with the predominant color the neutral beige of the unpainted masking tape. The Cowboy is upright astride a rearing horse, while the man with the moustache is a musician playing a large guitar or mandolin. Each is quite stationary and rigid but quite charismatic anyway.
Author Ellen Dissanayake in her book “Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why” studies the reasons that humans make art. She lists the following to include: “play, display, exploration, amusement and pleasure, creativity and innovation, transformation, the joy of recognition…and discovery…wonder…” Willard Hill, in his expansive exploration of his friends, neighbors, culture and his own wildly inventive imagination exhibits all of the above. He is especially enjoying the recognition that he has lately achieved with his sculptures. He lives in Manchester, Tennessee, which he describes as “just a little town.” Says Hill “nothing like this has ever happened around here” (he is talking about his burgeoning international art career). “Now I am somebody. “
Nancy Kay Turner is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Turner is an artist, arts writer and educator who has written for ARTWEEK, ARTSCENE and Visions Magazine. She fled NewYork for the sun and fun of California and has never looked back.