Featuring maplike works and a hanging glass installation, Alison Hildreth’s exhibition “Flight” at Speedwell Projects is a meditation on depth and descent.

In the past, Hildreth’s paintings and drawings have projected an archeological depth. Her works on paper have tended to show topological scenes, such as a peninsula or river valley, with shifting and fading markers like fortresses, roads or railroads. Hildreth’s touch on these works offered the place a sense of organic life, but seen at arm’s length as through the lens of a cartographer or anthropologist. The human presence came to us as traces – data maybe more legible to the professional than the viewing layperson.

Hildreth’s “Flight” includes some of these drawings, but offers them a more poignant, urgent and darker context. These drawings feature images that are human-sized on tall, hanging sheets of paper that drop from dowels like unfurled magical parchments. The drawings are joined by black-ground paintings of similar subjects and a huge glass installation featuring hundreds of black or clear hand-made elements strung on monofilament over a sheet of black lucite that acts like an endless of pool of mirrored darkness.

“Soundless as Shadows #1”

“Flight” is an apt title. Quite literally, it refers to the bat-like hand-pulled glass forms of the installation. And among them are flight-oriented figures, such as a winged Icarus with a drawing-figure mannequin for a body. But flight implies intention and agency. In Western art history, it begins with the often-painted “Flight into Egypt”: In the biblical book of Matthew, soon after being visited by the magi an angel appears to Jacob and tells him to flee into Egypt as Herod was seeking to kill the baby Jesus. “Flight,” in other words, means “fly for your life.”

With Hildreth’s maps and sense of human history as the history of societal shift and migration, “Flight” strikes an uncanny sense of the political moment: We cannot help but think of the migrants now in Mexico who are fleeing a dangerous regime – only to be targeted as the enemy by American nationalists. Damned if you do, hints Hildreth, and not by chance. Her work isn’t cynical: It fearlessly points to danger. The titles of her paintings only echo this: “The Flood,” “Disappearance,” “Ruins,” and “Soundless as Shadows.” No, Hildreth is not looking back to when communities were thriving. She’s showing us skeletons, markers of absence, the triumph of the abyss.

The drawings are particularly effective. Using gouache, ink, graphite and other media, Hildreth works and works the paper with each of the thousands marks or dots prevailing an intentional step further into the mystery. Because they lead the way through barely-legible passages of history, each mark feels laden with intent and purpose on the artist’s part. These marks create the historical space: they do not merely fill it in.

The paintings offer a strong visual counter to the drawings. They lack the precision of intention of the drawings (think marks on a map versus strokes in a painting) but they push more deeply into dark dreams of absence. Some of the paintings approach the literalism of Yvonne Jacquette’s night scenes seen from the air, but others devolve into a few swirling silver strokes within the varied black-painted ground. Almost oddly, these all hold together with a sense of organic anthropomorphism – the shapes on the surface, as a whole, look rather like a human figure, or better maybe, ghosts.

The most profound context for “Flight” is the hanging installation. With hundreds of black bat-like glass figures, lenses, sand-filled bottles, it presses the idea of human culture as the dark arts of descent. Science becomes alchemy and philosophy falls like Faust. And with the onyx black abyss below it, the lenses are not the outward tools of astronomy, but the downward dreams of the abyss. Quite specifically, this work has the feel of the art historical painting trope, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” made so great by the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and James Ensor among many others. Unlike most traditional paintings, this subject looks like a swarm, a chaotic battle in the air rather than anything rational or organized.

“Flight”

Hildreth’s use of the Icarus-like mannequins has always fascinated me, but here it comes into dark focus. Icarus’s wings were made by his father, Daedalus, who was being held prisoner by King Minos. Daedalus was forced to create a prison – the labyrinth – for the Queen’s bastard son, the Minotaur. (Let’s just say Minos didn’t get along with the Gods and they didn’t let it slide.) And the labyrinth is, I am wagering, the key kernel of Hildreth’s fascination. It is a prison for our bestial side, the remnants of our darkest inclinations. It’s a structure beyond our rational abilities, a place of sacrifice and shame. Daedalus, the great genius of the day, invented the labyrinth as an effectively brutal tool for a king he hated. And whereas Daedalus then created working wings of wax and feathers, he was punished for this (hubris?) when his beloved son Icarus arrogantly flew too close to the sun and then fell to his death, the wax of his wings melted away. No, I don’t think it’s by chance, that one of the greatest paintings of this scene (actually, one of the greatest paintings of anything ever) was also made in 1558 by Bruegel. In his brilliantly creative image, we see farmers and ships and the workaday world chugging along and not noticing the tiny splash as Icarus falls to his death in the faraway ocean. Maybe this is like the dots in Hildreth’s drawings: tiny splashes, too far away for us to notice or too far past to remember.

To be sure, you don’t need to know Bruegel to get Hildreth’s works: They are more than powerful enough on their own. In fact, they are probably better considered on their own since they exude no inkling of nostalgia or sentimentality. Hildreth’s sense of darkness is impressively bold to the point of unbridled appeal: It’s a thing of beauty. It’s intricate, powerful and cunning. And she, for one, is not afraid of the abyss.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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