Good clean fun

Patrick Hillman’s art fuses kitty litter, soap, gentle humor and mom

“Nightlight,” by Patrick Hillman

“Nightlight,” by Patrick Hillman

photo by carey wilson

Total Wreck
shows through Oct. 9 at the University Art Gallery.

University Art Gallery
Trinity Hall 100
Chico State

The pieces are pretty. Soft colors predominate, and the shapes are smooth and shiny.

At first glance, Patrick Hillman’s installation Total Wreck, currently gracing the walls of the University Art Gallery, strikes one as pleasantly decorative, even relaxing. But delving into the artist’s descriptions of the pieces in the exhibition program notes, and hearing him talk about how he conceived of and assembled the pieces reveals a richer, more conceptual emotional depth that resides within—but doesn’t negate—the personal, gentle and humorous resonance of his works’ physical manifestation.

Speaking at the gallery during the show’s reception, the San Francisco-based artist asserted that his mother’s domestic caretaking provided the main inspirations behind the creations he eventually constructed for this group of works. Hanging at an odd angle on the back wall of the main exhibition hall, “My mom is more afraid of bedbugs than terrorists”—a construction of “paper, string, wooden dowels, [and] found plastic tassels”—is a trompe l’oeil reproduction of the type of louvered venetian blind that covers (and malfunctions on) the windows of nearly every rental home. Looking at it, this reviewer initially thought, “Oh, how brilliantly conceptual, he bought a window shade at Walmart and is calling it art because he hung it on the wall of a gallery. How Yoko Ono can you get?” Learning through his talk that Hillman had painstakingly constructed this exact duplicate out of common household materials pretty much knocked the wind out of my faux-aesthetic indignation.

“The anxiety of daily maintenance,” a work marked only by a small numbered pin stuck into the wall adjacent to it (the titles and some information regarding the materials used in making the art is in printed programs that one can use to navigate a self-guided tour of the installation) is an even more Yokoesque conceptual piece.

Designated in the program as a “durational piece,” its true grandeur will develop over the course of the installation, as it is “performed daily by gallery sitters. Using different tints and finishes of white house paint, participants use a Swiffer to ‘clean’ the same portion of gallery wall over and over, charting the pattern and mark-making of a repetitious chore.” In its initial state on opening night of the exhibition it resembled nothing so much as the proverbial blank cartoon painting, “Polar Bear Lost in a Snowstorm.”

More visually and conceptually interesting is “The cuckold,” which consists of a grouping of separately cast hearts, animal figures and seashells made of softly colored “candle wax and paraffin wax, bar soap, resin, [and] linen doilies.” Innocent and rather sweet looking until one notices that, as described in the program notes, “the artist’s genitals [cast in wax] are emasculated and humiliated as mere display posts for a variety of found, handmade doilies.” The program further notes that the word cuckold “can also mean the fetish derived from such practices, where the male is complicit and takes pleasure in his own degradation.”

More in keeping with the artist’s stated goal—that the inspiration for his process in making the pieces “was really an homage to the work my mother did” as a very cleanliness-obsessed house keeper—are the large, multipiece groupings titled “Breakdown & let it out.” Those are formed using jello and cake molds to create colorful stacked columns made of—among other things—soap, wax, kitty litter, Pepto-Bismol, Imodium A-D, cough drops and resin. The separate pieces resemble party decorations and together covey a sense of playfulness and whimsy that belies the materials they are made of.

Just as whimsical is “Nightlight,” a wax casting of the artist’s boyfriend’s rear end surrounded by multicolored wax roses and lit from the interior by an LED light. Its blend of domesticity, intimately romantic sentiment and humor perfectly complements and embodies the intention of the installation as whole, and provides a fitting end for this review.