SHIP IN THE WOODS
written by Gordon Young
Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
- The Tempest, Act III, Scene II
2018 was a busy year for Meghan Hildebrand – her U.S. debut at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was followed by a successful appearance at the Skye Gallery in Aspen, Colorado – and 2019 looks like it's going to be just as hectic. Already set to launch her second solo show of the year, this increased activity is a direct result of the widening awareness of Hildebrand's work among curators – including Danielle Krysa, aka The Jealous Curator, whose influential podcast has brought even greater recognition to this artist's bold vision. That's why her most recent show at Mayberry Fine Art, Ship in the Woods, offers an exciting opportunity not just for fans and collectors, but also for those who have yet to journey into the revelatory landscapes of Hildebrand's imagination.
As its title suggests, two symbols dominate this series of paintings. The first, a technological achievement that broadened the reach and scope of the human species: the floating vessel capable of crossing vast oceans. The second, a site of wonder and mystery, abundant with natural resources and proliferating life: the wildernesses into which seafarers and assorted stragglers have ventured over the centuries. Yet what we find in these works is not a glorious evocation of the grand visions and triumphant conquests of the pioneers of human exploration. Instead, we enter a post-historical, post-human realm, where the grand narratives of human history have long since vanished into the ocean of oblivion, leaving behind mere relics washed ashore, abandoned, or transformed into playthings for the same kind of miraculous beings populating Prospero's enchanted isle in Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Take, for instance, the eponymous painting, Ship in the Woods – the most monumental work of the series. Before us we see the ghostly apparition of a galleon (masterfully evoked with a transparent, earth-hued wash) from the now almost mythical days, centuries past, of discovery and domination. Scattered around it lies the debris of humanity: bottles, tires, and apparently a delivery truck half-buried in the fecund earth. And yet the galleon (a testament to the technological wizardry of the human mind), lying in a languid horizontal across the bulk of the painting, is literally having vertical strips torn out of it by abstract tree-forms adorned here and there with eyes, while elemental patches of coloured grid-like patterns simultaneously begin to swallow it up. In the background, pure white verticals multiply and vault triumphantly upward and out of the painting. This galleon, almost a dream in the mind of the forest, has become a faded curiosity for the watchful inhabitants. They observe – perhaps murmuring among themselves, or chattering like birds at dawn – its magical metamorphosis.
In many of the paintings, the vessels are like rocks that have been subjected to the endless waves of time, worn down and smoothed till they resemble toy-like shapes, sometimes only vaguely reminiscent of their original forms. In others, they resemble skeletons – ancient dinosaurs of engineering. And their purposes have also undergone magical transformations. In Afloat in the Woods, for example, the remnant of what might once have been a cargo ship has seemingly been transformed into a site of alchemical experimentation, where a being – resembling a cloud of fireflies – rises from one of its funnels. In the vessel's lower-level compartments, containers emit the sparks from which this firefly-being was created, presumably placed there by other fantastical inhabitants of this forest.
But what are these mysterious spirits that populate these paintings? Are they, perhaps, representations of essential energies as understood by the pre-scientific mind – the mystical precursors of the "virtual particles" that quantum field theory tells us are forever flitting into and out of existence in the vast quantum vacuum? Are they the anthropomorphic ancestors of the slightly more predictable, though less relatable, elements of the Standard Model – muons and gluons and the swiftly decaying Higgs boson? Maybe they are the very spirits known intuitively to men and women of past eras who harvested forests for shelter and warmth, strangers to the climate-controlled dwellings of the contemporary condo owner. Does this explain why the forest spirits have allowed the quaint old forms of rustic cabins and triangular piles of logs to survive like museum pieces dedicated to the memory of less destructive human inhabitants? Hildebrand doesn't offer clear answers to these questions, leaving viewers to seek solutions for themselves.
What is clear, however, is that these paintings represent dimensions of reality beyond linear conceptions of human history – and all without recourse to a single mathematical equation. Space and time are shattered. Shards of moments and sites flash like lightning across the canvases. Night slices through day. A field of stars suddenly manifests in a terrestrial forest, and a patchwork of basic shapes and hues – the building blocks of artistic creation, squiggles and flowing streams of paint – float beside interstellar worlds next to lakes and mountains glowing golden at the end of a summer's day. We are witness to the mad, whimsical, dizzying vision of wondrous simultaneity, the perpetual churn of creation and dissolution.
And, best of all, everyone is invited to witness these wonders – for Meghan Hildebrand's vision is open and inclusive. Her works remind us that every second is imbued with the miraculous. Overflowing with boundless good cheer and graceful fluidity, her paintings are raucous, explosive attempts to reawaken a species increasingly herded into states of data-driven apathy and discontent. She invites us to see through history to the timeless mysteries of being, and to energetically celebrate the never-ending canvas of creation upon which our fleeting forms appear and disappear.