Zombies are the stuff of comic books, low-budget horror films, and uninspired Halloween costumes. They enjoy a cyclical popularity and are presently registering on our collective radar thanks to a spate of baffling conflations with literature (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and history (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). And of course, AMC's version of The Walking Dead has helped catapult zombies from the confines of nerdy fandom into the average American living room.
Hildwine acknowledges the zombie's pop status and says he began painting them in an attempt to break free of the theory-heavy critiques of graduate school. Like a teenager escaping the confines of his parents' authoritarian home, he seized the opportunity to make his own rules. To him that meant focusing on "the pure physical pleasure of figurative realist painting and the voyeuristic pleasure of enjoyable subject matter."
In other words, Hildwine wanted to paint what he wanted, how he wanted, without having to justify the work in an academic context.
He lined the walls of his studio with several large canvases and began to paint a story: a bevy of young goth girls falls under zombie attack; true to the modern horror archetype of the terrorized yet empowered female, they fight back, but they're ultimately overcome. The scenario allows for ample exploration of the carnal with little concern for the cerebral. Its sex and violence, T&A, without all the pesky art-school symbolism. As such, it's the perfect complement to Halloween—a day that's become little more than an excuse for adults to dress like sluts and cover themselves in blood.
But a funny thing happened to Hildwine as he was indulging his baser instincts. As he worked, he found he couldn't leave his critical and conceptual training behind. What's more, he found that he didn't really want to leave it behind. Like that rebellious teenager when he finds that his parents' rules make sense after all, he began to look at his subject differently. Zombies may be fun to paint, he found, but they're also rich material for metaphor. When Hildwine looked at his finished canvases—painted in a linear progression, like a storyboard—he was reminded of historical panel paintings and altarpieces. The goth girls' transformation from the living to the living dead reminded him of medieval depictions of events like the life of Christ.
He began to consider the symbolism of zombies. How their lack of reason and empathy reflects the worst of humanity's traits. How, as unthinking, unfeeling creatures, they constitute the perfect foe: an enemy that needs to be killed. We're allowed to drive a broken rake handle though a zombie's neck without having to wonder if it had a shitty childhood or went off its meds. Using the academic language he'd initially tried to escape, Hildwine subjected his art to retrospective analysis. He separated it from its original intent and saw it as others might.
During a visit to Hildwine's Ravenswood lair (he works in a residential basement where I noticed a pair of vampire fangs on the ground), I confessed in polite terms that I didn't much like his paintings when I first came across them online. But seeing them in person, I found myself drawn to them. "That's exactly the reaction Linda had," he replied.
Linda Warren, of Linda Warren Projects, puts it differently. "I was like, What the fuck?," she recalls. "I didn't think I could sell it." But Warren liked the work, and she liked Hildwine, too, so she gave him a show, "Living Dead Girls," in April 2012. The response, she says, was overwhelmingly positive. People enjoyed the show's intelligence, skill, and sweeping cinematic qualities. And while pieces didn't exactly fly off the walls (zombies and naked goths don't fit into everyone's interior design scheme), she was able to place one with Howard Tullman, a Chicago-based entrepreneur and one of the country's leading collectors of contemporary art.
Hildwine is a talented painter, whether or not you pay attention to academic criteria like brushwork or composition. And more than that, he's a compelling storyteller, creating narrative vistas that are absorbing even for those of us who are repulsed by the subject matter. All the age-old dualities are there: good and evil, light and dark, life and death. And that leaves plenty of space to read things into the work. For me, Hildwine's art—and the proliferation of zombie lore in general—resonates because the idea of an infection working its way into the collective blood stream terrifies us on a fundamental level. From communism to AIDS to radical religion, we're haunted by the fear of a spreading threat that we can neither stop nor fully understand.
Hildwine is currently part of "Adoration of the Flesh," a group show running at the Charnel House through November 17. His paintings deserve to be judged on their own merits, so hold off on seeing them until all this Halloween nonsense dies down . . . no pun intended, of course.