Creative obsession 


Katherine Hilden: Recently Discovered Drawings of Vermeer Part IV
Galerie Penumbra through Jan. 27

There’s no sense in trying to recreate Vermeer. Who could do it successfully? Artists who are obsessed with a genius predecessor may try to mimic the other artist’s gifts or unique sensibilities as a way of internalizing them — and this can work — but sometimes an obsession goes further.

In the case of Katherine Hilden, the Chicago artist whose exhibition Recently Discovered Drawings of Vermeer Part IV is on view at Galerie Penumbra, the object of her obsession — the oeuvre of Jan Vermeer — inspires her to internalize his paintings through a sort of visual memorization. She then attempts to capture some essence of his compositions by drawing her memories blind onto canvas.

Vermeer (1632-1675) painted genre scenes of his time with subtle narratives. “The Letter,” for example, depicts a woman who has just received a letter, looking up into the face of the maid who, smiling, appears to have just delivered it. The magic of anticipation is matched by the brilliance of the light cascading into the space from an unseen window. We don’t know what the letter contains, if it’s even a happy one, but the lute resting in the woman’s other hand symbolically suggests a romantic interest.

None of this subtlety or precision is apparent in Hilden’s interpretations. Rather, Hilden affixes what she calls her “intuitive understanding” of Vermeer’s work by the aforementioned painted line drawings on canvas, drawn with eyes closed, and in a second series, non-blind pencil drawings loosely combining single images as might be seen in a Vermeer painting: a woman in a flowing gown and bonnet, a gentleman in tails and stockings, a child prostrate over an adult’s shoulder, a bowl of fruit and so forth.

Taken in together, the paintings redeem the drawings — and vice versa. One approach lends context to the other. We know Hilden “can draw,” for instance; but we also know she has the nerve to try something utterly nonsensical on first blush, almost comically naïve from an aesthetic standpoint. There’s a strange beauty to the seeping, sepia-toned scrawls. They are deliberately put down, saturating the canvas in a sort of primitive homage.

This is not about inauthenticity disguised as art, as much trend-driven work is; rather, this is such a unique approach as to suggest something entirely different, and decidedly unselfconscious. In other words, it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on here. Instead, the drawings have the musty but genuine feel of cave drawings, an attempt at understanding one’s experience.

The Recently Discovered Drawings of Vermeer Part IV, by Katherine Hilden, is on view at Galerie Penumbra, 1043 Virginia Ave., through Jan. 27. Call 317-508-8043 or visit


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