Hilary Wilder, An Immodern Proposal #1 (Adjustable Sculpture), 2010; acrylic on PVC, hinges, cardboard; dimensions variable; as installed: 36 x 18 x 16 inches; courtesy the artist; photo by Hilary Wilder
Ornament and Crime #2, 2010; acrylic on cardboard, 15 x 29 inches (unfolded); courtesy the artist; photo by Hilary Wilder
Encountering Hilary Wilder’s paintings and sculptures at The Suburban is like finding a fragment of the iconic modernist buildings of Chicago’s skyline in a grassy field. A rectangular stretch of steely gray, flashing gold and pulsing blue cuts across the gallery floor in Palazzo, evoking the flashes of light reflecting off the glass towers along Lake Michigan. Despite the flatness and rectangular composition of this “painting,” made from acrylic on vinyl adhesive, the individual shapes conform to cracks in the concrete floor, suggesting a more intentional relation between the work and its environment. Like the rest of the exhibition, Palazzo is about modern architecture, including the design and function of the gallery. The exhibition’s title, Ornament and Crime, is borrowed from the architect and theorist Adolf Loos’ influential 1908 essay: a fiery condemnation of ornament as “degenerate” and a waste of materials. Loos argued for simply designed, well-made objects that wouldn’t go out of fashion as opposed to decorated, cheaply made, stylish goods. Wilder challenges this dichotomy by painting ornate acrylic patterns onto basic shapes made from inexpensive, machine-made materials.
Balancing the handmade and mass-produced while combining art and ornamentation, Wilder induces a moment of uncertainty when one first encounters her work as installed: the objects can be easily misconstrued as flooring samples. Particularly susceptible to this reading are An Immodern Proposal #1 and #2 in which blunt-tipped triangles of painted PVC are fastened together with small metal rings. In Proposal #2 a curtain of these modules mysteriously peels away from the wall on which it hangs. In Proposal #1 the modules are folded and propped against a box, leaving the viewer to decide whether they are decoration or serve some function revealed only by handling. Moreover, Wilder’s cardboard boxes painted with faux wood-grain patterns appear as an artful stack of minimalist cubes in the gallery context. But the suggestion of a hidden functionality makes these objects especially difficult to categorize, fostering an ambiguity that pops the top on a can of rancorous art-historical worms, namely, the difference between art and ornament.
Ultimately, Wilder’s objects themselves are not as interesting as what they make the gallery do, which is work at separating art from life (especially at The Suburban, where the proximity of the gallery to the curator’s adjacent home already tests the white cube as a non-place and blank slate). The tension between the cleanliness of the gallery and the decorative quality of Wilder’s objects, along with the show’s title, casts the white cube as a product of Loos’ argument against ornament. David Batchelor, evaluating the impact of Loos’ ideas a century later, observes in his book Chromophobia how “whitescapes,” predominant in contemporary architecture, curb the power of objects by having any decoration “approved, trained, disciplined, marshalled” into conformity. Wilder’s odd combination of glitzy pattern, minimal forms and mass-produced materials lets the viewer glimpse, in that first uncertain glance, the process of objects assimilating into the gallery’s clean design. Once the white cube absorbs the work, Wilder’s exhibition becomes a clever, wistful commentary on the battles once waged over art and ornament. Still, that suggestion of the decorative—which the gallery can’t quite scrub out—lingers on, taunting.
Regan Golden-McNerney is an artist and writer based in Chicago.