Dan Hillier’s Neo-Victorian Fever Dreams

'Towards Death', © Dan Hillier

‘These forgotten images and discarded memories re-write a gorgeously dark period of history, one full of elephant men and taxidermy, death and medicine. The resulting pieces are like postcards coming from Beardsley from a Victorian mansion – if the mansion was populated by circus freaks and Werner Herzog.’ (Dazed and Confused Magazine, April 2007)

A few weeks ago I posted about the artwork of Travis Louie, and its resemblance to Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits. This week I’m doing some research on a very different artist indeed, who I nevertheless hope to compare with Louie in the chapter I’m working on. This artist is Dan Hillier, born in Oxford (far from Louie’s hometown in Queens, NY), now living in Hackney, London. Like Louie, Hillier’s work appropriates Victorian aesthetics and narratives, and depicts fantastical beasts or monsters in this style. The ‘mystery, wonder and amazement’ that Hillier is trying to put into his work also resonates with what Louie communicates.

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Taking prints and pages from old issues of the Illustrated London News, magazines, anatomical textbooks, and ‘various bits and pieces from all over the place’, Hillier’s work is arguably much more deserving of the term ‘mashup’ than Louie’s is. Though much of his collage is done in Photoshop, however, Hillier also does extensive pen-and-ink work – sometimes on top of these collages, sometimes on its own, always in an impressive level of detail.

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If I had to compare Hillier’s work to something in terms of aesthetics, it might as well be the surrealist collages of Max Ernst. Hillier himself cites Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Kindness) as a particular source of inspiration. In addition, there are several contemporary artists who have drawn comparisons to Hillier, including Claudia Drake, George K. (alias olex oleole), and, my personal favourite, Mad Meg. Hillier also has a gif series devoted to his work. Naturally though, like all artists, Hillier’s work is ultimately unique.

BeautifulBizzare has some insightful comments on the way he transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar:

Some of Hillier’s most popular work is found in his hybrid figures, mixing ornate Victorian styled subjects with the cosmic and bestial imagery that he is so fond of, challenging our perception of identity and ego. Using images in his collage work from 19th century prints and medical dictionaries, Hillier presents us a discontented and uncomfortable realism that sits uneasy on the eye, but demands our attention to all the wonderful detail. With a third eye present in humans and beasts alike, Hillier takes the Victorian’s thirst for knowledge and strips it away, until all we have is the terror of knowing too much.

Rather than being photorealistic, these images approach reality from the perspective of the anatomical textbook – a Victorian staple almost as evocative as the photograph. Although the subject matter of Hillier’s work is often grotesque or macabre, and the finished image almost always a somber black-and-white, the scenes he presents always manage to make an oddly cheerful – even gleeful – impression.

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If you’re keen to have a closer look at Dan Hillier’s work, you can catch it at the 2016 summer ‘Wonder’ season at Shakespeare’s Globe, or at The Other Art Fair in London (7-10 April, Victoria House). Or you can just pop by his stall at the Sunday Upmarket one weekend.

[EDIT: Any (Neo-)Victorianists reading this post may be interested to know that Dan Hillier’s work was part of Sonia Solicari’s ‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’ exhibition in 2013. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend, but I did manage to score an art book. You may also know Hillier’s work from this 2010 music video (Losers’ ‘Flush’, featuring Riz MC & Envy), or his cover art for Royal Blood’s debut album in 2014, which won the Best Art Vinyl award.]

Immigrant Portraiture and the Art of the Alien

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‘German stowaway’, 1911. ©Augustus Sherman | New York Public Library

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, a new book collecting the work of Augustus F. Sherman was published to much media interest and online fanfare. Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

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In addition to giving Americans a vivid look at the individuals who helped make up the ‘great melting pot’, Ellis Island station served as a grimly reflective record of shifting national attitutes towards immigarnts, as reflected in The Public Domain Review’s summary of the station’s usage:

1907 was the busiest year for Ellis Island, with an all-time high of 11,747 immigrants arriving in April. Approved immigrants spent between three to five hours on the island where they underwent medical examinations and were asked questions regarding their occupation and the money they owned, it being preferable for them to have a starting sum when they arrived in the country. Two percent of the immigrants were denied admission on the grounds of suffering from contagious diseases or insanity, or alternatively by virtue of having a criminal background. In the 1920s, restrictions were placed on the percentage of immigrants arriving from various countries or ethnic backgrounds, as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were seen as inferior to the earlier immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. The facilities later served as a detention and deportation processing station, and during the Second World War, German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens were detained on the island.

Likewise, the portraiture of thenative’ and the foreign national (or criminal) has a complex and often rocky history.

Fittingly, around the same time that this book of Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits was released, Travis Louie started selling his paintings of neo-historical monsters – portraits in a faux-Victorian photographic style, about which I am currently writing. Nastia Voynovskaya describes Louie’s work as follows over at Hi-Fructose:

Through a unique process of applying thin, translucent layers of monochromatic, acrylic paint to a panel over and over, Travis Louie […] mimics the effect of 19th-century photography. Though filled with fantastical characters, his works have an effect of verisimilitude much like historical documents from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Though Louie’s monster portraiture draws on the North-American nineteenth century rather than the British one, visually his paintings are ambiguous enough to allow for a neo-Victorian reading. A sense of historical time is much easier to pin down in his artwork than a geographical space, partly due to the subject matter of his work. Louie has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’.

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It seems quite possible that Louie is referring to Sherman’s photographs when he speaks of a convincing record of the North American immigrant experience. Specifically, Louie’s artwork targets the way these images invite a kind of casual racism, or a generalisation of peoples into stereotypes of national custom and costume. As he explains in an interview with Julie Winters of BienArt Gallery:

I created these characters as a sort of veiled commentary on racism and the immigrant experience. In many of my stories, my characters came to North America like any other immigrants, only I chose otherworldly types of beings to make the stories more universal.

Louie’s artwork frequently draws on a 1950s aesthetic as well as a Victorian one, specifically interested in the future-focused imagery of the Atomic Age. When combined, these two aesthetics work together to create a strange timelessness, and a general air of hopeful nostalgia. In the same interview, Louie writes: ‘I almost get that sense that people were more hopeful about the future in North America than they are now and that played into a sense of wonder that is very important to me’.

Given North America’s current culture of intolerance towards immigrants, it may be a long time before this sense of wonder returns to the American psyche. Until then, however, we have artists like Travis Louie to help keep that spirit alive.

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You can find more of Augustus F. Sherman’s photographs via the New York Public Library. A sampling of Travis Louie’s portrait work can be found on his website.

 

Angels and Apes on Summer Hiatus

'Sleepy Soloman', sketch by Travis Louie, 2012.
‘Sleepy Solomon’, sketch by Travis Louie, 2012.

The time has come – the sun is shining, the plants are pollinating, and here in Rotterdam (my former place of work), where I’m volunteering at the 46th Poetry International Festival, walking outside in flip-flops and a short sleeves is almost comfortable. Today, among many exciting readings, workshops, and master classes, we’ve got a programme featuring Kenneth Goldsmith, the controversial ‘uncreative writer’ who recently received some staunch criticism for reading the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the young man fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer back in August 2014.

I’m hoping to blog about my experiences at this festival sometime soon, but it will have to wait until I get back from San Antonio at the end of July. Until then Angel and Apes is going on summer hiatus, while I tie up loose ends, meet last-minute deadlines, and take a long-planned road trip across the American South. Thanks to all of you who have been reading so far, since this blog launched at the end of January. We’ve hit more than 1,000 visitors (and almost twice that many views, and I’m hoping the second half of the year will see that number grow steadily.

We’ll be back with a regular weekly post in August 2015. See you then!

Travis Louie and the Other Victorians

Artist Travis Louie paints some of my favourite portraits. Part Victorian photography, part monster mashup—no matter how hard I believe that his fantastical creations never actually existed, looking into their eyes I can never quite shake the feeling that they’re still out there somewhere, taking selfies and giving the paleo diet a go.