at North Park College, Carlson Tower Gallery, through September 20

Social movements tend to create new language, either by adapting existing language or by prescribing new words. The National Convention of the French Revolution changed the names of the months according to its vision of a new society; the coinage of terms like “rococo” and “cubism” marked pivotal points in art history. Some changes are superficial, but others affect a deeper stratum of connections between language, self, gender, and culture. It is in the meeting between self and visual language–where tradition, technique, the personal, and the political form a new way of representing the feminine–that Nancy Hild’s paintings find their voice.

Hild’s current show, at the Tower Gallery of North Park College, is populated by mysterious domestic animals and objects painted with enigmatic verisimilitude against dark backgrounds. Chicks, hens, bunnies, baby dolls, and a dog gaze quietly out of (or into) a dark world. Musing, one begins to realize that all these creatures are linked with female identity and sexuality. They are not the domestic objects of conventional 17th-century nature morte paintings, which depicted the hunter’s spoils, but creatures traditionally in the care of and associated with women. With dire seriousness and a carefully refined, eclectic sense of irony, Hild drains the traditional female diminutives (“bunny,” “chick,” “hen”) and invectives (“bitch”) of their trivializing or pejorative functions, co-opting them as powerful and mysterious signs in a feminine language, an iconography of gender just coming into being.

A set of nine paintings separately framed in heavy dark wood, Conjunctions: Past Present/Present Past, seems to hold a key to Hild’s project. The objects in this lottery grid or set of tarot cards are named, which gives the viewer an idea of why they’re important to the painter, and possibly to us. The top row includes a chicken leg (Sustenance), a human heart tied and hanging on a rope (Love), and a black-and-white satin high heel (Seduction). The middle row holds a white work glove (Labor), a live barred rock chicken (Maternity), and a lacy black glove (Romance). In the bottom row is a hand with a cigarette (Spirit), a brain in a baggie (Intellect), and a hand holding an egg (Creation). All the objects are painted against a shallow background, generally dark but sometimes colored. The light is ably handled but flat, which increases the sense that the images are intellectual and verbal, essential components of a hermetic vocabulary or arcane science. One wonders whether the elements of the grid can be rearranged: could one, for instance, combine romance and love rather than seduction and love? Could one “read” the sequence down (Sustenance, Labor, Spirit) or diagonally–from upper left to lower right, the chicken leg (Sustenance), the chicken (Maternity), and the egg (Creation)?

The grid suggests other contrasts and similarities–visual ways of making associations. The black-and-white barred rock chicken, with its lacy feathers, resonates with the black-and-white-striped satin high heel and the black lace glove. One glove is black, the other white; the chicken is the only element with a face. Disturbingly, the grid is filled with body fragments. The heart and the brain have been removed from the body; sustenance, represented by the chicken leg, is clearly gained at some cost to the chicken. Even more directly than the other works in the show, this one displays the desire to form a kind of language of images representing the female psyche’s connections with the world. But like other personal languages, these complex, polished ideograms are ultimately mysterious.

Triptych is a group of three paintings: a frog, a baby doll, and a dressed chicken, framed together this time–fixed in an uneasy relationship, they seem to add up to a sentence. Again the objects are isolated in a shallow space and painted with the kind of detail that suggests scientific drawings or the lush images of advertising. Part of what makes this set so dark is that the frog, baby doll, and chicken do seem to have been turned into objects. The baby doll and the frog, which in many cultures signifies the genitals or fecundity, are stretched out with their bellies exposed. They seem similar somehow, vulnerable and rounded, on their way to becoming something else or pinned down for some unflinching and dehumanizing scrutiny. The chicken is the kind of carcass one would buy for broiling: cold, pink, and slippery-looking. One wants to connect it with the baby and frog but can’t quite, and yet it is of a similar shape. Another painting of three related objects, Three Ages of Chicken, relies on a motif common during the Renaissance, the “three ages of woman,” depicting a young woman, a mature woman, and a crone. Here we see a barred rock hen, a chick, and a plucked rubber chicken in a painted shadow box.

The artist’s obsessive reworking of these subjects and the way she paints are what convey the sense that these are signs coming into being. The medium is acrylic, and the paintings’ dark, glazed quality makes these creatures and objects seem to emerge from the background, as if out of the past or out of the artist’s kunstkammer (a personal collection of rare objects, of a type that historically preceded public museums). The painter’s technique is superb, almost magical, and the stillness and isolation of her subjects intensify the eeriness of her enterprise. Verisimilitude, particularly practiced with so much concentration and method, carries with it a set of philosophical questions. Why make it all so real? The absence of marks–evidence of the artist’s hand–produces a kind of anonymity, and one wonders whether some magical power still resides in the mimetic object, proceeding from an authority beyond the 20th century.

Issues of authority and language are complex and filled with contention. The way Hild plays with archetypes and mythology points to a history of female representations, to slang and folk knowledge, which she recalls through images. The way she foregrounds marginalized genres–animal paintings and still lifes–calls into question cultural and art historical structures. The egg in a female hand, the image Hild chooses to signify creation, ignores Christian iconography, instead harking back to a pre-Christian cosmogony, which implies a prepatriarchal society. Possibly in this world a “bitch” would steadily return one’s gaze, as in Still Life With Bitch, whereas in our world she might passively receive the viewer’s gaze, a possession rather than a being.

What authority does Hild invoke? The darkness and mystery of the paintings seem to tell us that we can’t know. Modern criticism tells us that there is no authority, that languages and images and the concepts they embody are a collection of ideas, a group of polyphonous voices superimposed and entwined, not placed into the world of a piece by a transcendent being. So the contemporary painter works by selecting some conventions from this century, some from another, objects with layers of meaning, colors and compositions with differing connotations and effects. Hild’s highly worked surfaces, in the modern medium of acrylic, recall a preindustrial past, when painters had the time to slowly work up an illusory world, always in some way curiously parallel to this one.

Despite the seriousness of her project, Hild also reveals a sly sense of humor in the titles and in some of the pieces. Juggle, the most colorful of the paintings, shows a woman’s hands juggling three brightly colored bean-bag frogs, amusing, humorous toys. Yet when one thinks about it, frogs are womblike and genital, androgynous, slippery. Women juggle their sexuality, their fecundity (like frogs, beans are a traditional symbol of fertility in some cultures), and their control over their reproductive systems. The juggling is a kind of playing with one’s life. The painting plays with ideas, and playing (an idea repeated in this exhibit by the baby doll) is one of the ways in which we create ourselves. Humor keeps the imagery in direct connection with the unconscious but prevents it from becoming too self-important and theoretical.

Council of the Birds is the only painting in this exhibit that contains a light source, an illuminated plastic goose with an oracular albeit mass-produced glow. (Is it Mother Goose, a popular creature with origins, again, in the pre-Christian past?) She is surrounded in the hierarchical manner of religious paintings by a council of birds: a chick, the ubiquitous barred rock hen, partridges, quail, a pheasant, a turkey. Does she in some way represent them? Something about the beauty of the birds and the culturally positive associations they have makes this painting the most hopeful of the collection. The relationship between the creatures and the viewer in the other paintings is troubling and problematic because they’re under such intense scrutiny by the artist, and as a result by the viewer. In Council of the Birds we don’t really know what’s going on between the birds, but it seems as if they’ve been freed of a static organization, of stillness, and are engaged in their own discussion about the nature and meaning of the illuminated goose. There is a resonance here between the 17th-century nature morte paintings of dead beasts–the hunter’s offerings–and the 20th century’s live animals, who are actually doing something. Council of the Birds functions as a kind of mirror for the fascinated viewers of this remarkable exhibition, who are also questioning their own representations, looking for meaning in objects that are illuminating but different from themselves.