One of the reasons I’m so enamored of Tyler Hildebrand’s multimedia painting and sculpture is because his subjects are so familiar. Hildebrand is fourteen years younger than me, but we have a lot in common: the artist is a former Nashvillian, but he was born in Cincinnati and he’s currently based back in Ohio. I’m currently a Nashvillian, but I was born in Detroit and raised in southeastern Michigan. Hildebrand’s work brims with images of Midwestern working class people and the popular culture of daytime television, country music, football, professional wrestling, fast food – all the same stuff everyone in that part of the country would recognize. Hildebrand’s exhibition “The Retirement Party” at David Lusk Gallery is never preachy or precious, and it’s not a political polemic about the “white working class.” To the contrary, this exhibition is infused with the kind of anarchic glee Waylon Jennings – the show’s patron saint – might have been singing about in “The Wild Ones”:
Straight out of nowhere
And a little bit out of our minds
We were courting disaster
With one foot over the line
This show is totally bonkers and it’s also ceaselessly engaging, hilarious, and often beautiful. “The Retirement Party” is a show where a work like Carroll Cannons Undefeated is a highlight of the main gallery space – the installation features a football helmet on top of an artificial Christmas tree standing in a kiddie pool filled with bright orange Cheetos. The walls are covered with large 2D works that feature drawing, painting and collage packed with pop culture personalities. Big Boy 3 is festooned with a grid of various carpet squares featuring Snoopy alternatively clad as characters like Santa Claus, the Red Baron, and a hobo carrying a bindle. A painterly gesture in the lower right is a shit-stain-brown evocation of the legendary Sasquatch monster.
The back gallery features a grid of smaller canvases installed in a corner of the room. This series of Waymore works shouts out Waylon Jennings’s paean to excess, Waymore’s Blues. Hildebrand is certainly an artist of excess: his paint is often applied in sloppy swatches that splatter and drip; the expressions of his subjects aren’t just sad or happy – they’re tragic or delirious or lobotomized-looking; the physical proportions of his football players and wrestlers are the stuff of cartoons and comic books; and Hildebrand’s takes on logos for Wendy’s, Arby’s and Wonder Bread are gorgeous celebrations of junk food gluttony.
Other artists dealing with these same subjects might offer something more precious and ironic, or they might attempt to decode the semiotics of the numbers on a football jersey or the Darwinian implications of Snoopy’s upright posture. Hildebrand is content to genuinely revel in the Sunday afternoon heroes smashing each other into the Astroturf, and those coked-up cowboys who created the “Outlaw” mystique that accompanied some of the best country music of the 1970s.
Hildebrand seems to sincerely love the smell of Cheetos in the gallery and the adolescent hijinks of hiding a painting of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle having doggy-style sex with a pretty blonde behind a Peanuts lunch box. And it’s ultimately the artist’s hand and eye that elevate this macho mash-up to fine art – his palette is a blossom of beautiful colors, and Hildebrand is a showstopper as a draftsman. My favorite piece in the show is a portrait of the Dan and Roseanne Connor characters from the Roseanne television sitcom. Connor 1 features the pair embracing on the living room couch viewers may remember. Dan is smiling at Roseanne and Roseanne smiles coyly at the viewer. Hildebrand draws the whole scene with graphite but paints the purple and black stripes on Dan’s shirt and adds some chromatic embellishments to the design on Roseanne’s dress. The kids and Aunt Jackie are nowhere to be seen. Let’s give these two some alone time.
Tyler Hildebrand’s “The Retirement Party” is at David Lusk Gallery in Nashville through August 26.