Jayne Hileman

at Artemisia, through September 30

By Fred Camper

Some artists seem to respond to the large central room at Artemisia by stuffing it with sprawling, self-indulgently personal works announcing themselves at the high volume that’s increasingly common today. Jayne Hileman’s 12 understated drawings and sculptures, on the other hand, make restraint part of their statement.

Screen is one of four gouaches depicting enigmatic, almost abstract objects in muted reds and tans within startlingly shallow, almost flat spaces. Devoid of human figures, these pieces still suggest a human presence. Screen shows a large curtain on the right and a tan wall at the rear, suggesting the theatrical depth of surrealism though the space remains flat; a dress form resembles a basket, and the curiously unrealistic shadow it casts is reminiscent of a fish. An unidentifiable shape to the left throws a surreally detailed shadow in the other direction. Near the bottom of the space, drawn in a different perspective, is a somewhat abstracted ironing board.

Hileman’s scene recalls 19th-century poet Lautréamont’s famous metaphor for beauty–“a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and umbrella”–but without the drama or aggressive stab at surprise common in works inspired by surrealism. Screen’s shallow space does not pull the viewer in; if he does make an effort, it refuses to yield its secrets. It’s distinguished from similar but less successful, less compelling work by its mix of provocative elements and a feeling of silence. The curtain suggests drama, and the inconsistent shadows are certainly strange, but the scene is also unified by color and texture: it’s as if the principles of surrealism had been transfigured by some offshoot of Buddhism.

A Chicagoan who teaches art at Saint Xavier University, Hileman includes among other similarly enigmatic works several pieces that make specific social references. X-caliber is a sculpture of a rifle buried in a rock made of wood–one side shows the wood while the other is covered with gray fabric. The title recalls both the caliber of guns and King Arthur’s sword–and the sculpture suggests that the gun will be similarly difficult to remove, especially given the lack of heroes today. On the other hand, perhaps we should bury our guns. The butt leads the eye downward to the much more massive rock form, which suggests complete stasis, a freezing of the gun’s potential.

Hileman also critiques our gun culture in Fibonacci Flat. Here another rifle butt, mounted vertically on the floor and framed by wooden “wings,” becomes a wooden branch that diverges into two branches at the top. Like X-caliber, this piece blocks the gun’s potential destructive power: the twin branches recall Vietnam-era news photos of hippies placing flowers in gun barrels. Two other branches mounted on the wall just above the twin branches lead to a rectilinear wooden frame, which supports more branches: the 2 become 3, then 5, then 8, then 13, and finally 21. These are in fact the first numbers in the Fibonacci sequence, first posited by medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa; this sequence appears in such natural phenomena as the spirals of sunflower heads and snail shells.

Referring to these numbers and juxtaposing organic branches with the wooden grid, Hileman seems to express the wish that guns would morph into growing things. Still, she never pretends that her gun has actually turned into a tree–she doesn’t try to conceal the fact that she’s added branches by simply glueing them together–and this improbable growth must be supported by a trellis, made by the artist. Her piece does not create some new myth–it both expresses and deconstructs the fantasy that guns can somehow be defused by nature.

The show’s most striking–and perhaps most original–piece is also the most explicitly political. Political art has always posed a problem for artists interested in aesthetics; as avant-garde filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas once asked, Is it really possible to make art that appeals to, say, Republicans rather than Democrats? At least in modernist work, which almost requires paradox, it seems that art specific enough to be political will be reduced to mere propaganda, while any art ambiguous enough to be aesthetic will have little political impact.

Hileman’s RockHands consists of 14 large Xerox copies of elegant, expressive drawings of hands paired with printouts from a Web site about poor working conditions and union-organizing attempts in Nicaragua. Mounted in two rows, the photocopied hands are in a variety of poses almost suggesting some sign language; they seem proudly assertive, solid, declarative–though of what one can’t be sure. The fact that these are photocopies (offered at only $25 each, one of the lowest gallery prices I’ve seen) removes RockHands from the expensive, elitist realm of most gallery art. And both drawings and Web pages are casually mounted, pinned to the wall bulletin-board style and unframed. The Web pages, attached to the tops of the second row of photocopies, include the URL, encouraging the interested visitor to learn more about the workers’ low pay, the filthy bathrooms they must use, and union busting, all of which would be illegal in the United States. Hileman has also handwritten on the printouts the phone number of an American company targeted for protest because it sells the products made in these factories, making it easy for visitors to take direct action.

Hileman told me that she drew hands as a celebration of manual labor. And these Nicaraguans do work with their hands, an obvious connection I hadn’t made because the nobility of her hands suggested to me freely chosen handmade crafts and fists raised in protest, not numbingly repetitive tasks. But what’s most interesting, and ultimately moving, about the piece is the way its political information creates a kind of visual and conceptual fissure in Hileman’s wall of fine-art images. Frustrated by the difficulty of integrating her message–“call this company in Milwaukee to protest the denial of workers’ rights”–in a serious work of art but feeling the necessity of including it anyway, Hileman simply puts it in in the most direct way possible. True, there are connections between the printouts and the xeroxed drawings of hands–neither is “valuable,” yet both assume the individuality the factories seem to deny. But the overall lack of integration and the inclusion of information more specific than is common in gallery art suggest the contradictions of life as it’s really lived: it’s not easy to reconcile the part of our consciousness that perceives beauty with the part that asks questions about justice in the world. Yet RockHands seems to belie Mekas’s assertion: it’s a work of art that advances a specific political viewpoint.