MAKERS: Hilary D. Gent
“I’d rather risk an ugly surprise than rely on things I know how to do.” – Helen Frankenthaler
Hilary D. Gent is busy. You might know her as the owner/curator of HEDGE gallery in 78th Street Studios, the venerable space that now represents thirteen area emerging and professional artists including local art stars like John Carlson and Justin Brennan. In addition to curating her own space, she places art in other locations such as the Ritz Carlton, and local bars and restaurants (you’ll recognize one of her exhibits by that familiar “H” logo on the labels). She is also one of four curators chosen by CAN Journal for the inaugural CAN Triennial, a regional triennial exhibition that debuts this summer, scheduled to coincide with the FRONT Cleveland International Triennial.
But of course in addition to this busy schedule, Gent is an artist herself. An alumni of the Kent State School of Art, she studied with the late Craig Lucas, a legendary Cleveland artist that greatly influenced her practice. Other than some canvases in a show last summer at Kent State, Gent hasn’t shown new work in awhile – but she has two shows coming up this summer – one at a gallery called The Artseen in Vermillion, Ohio, and another slated for the newly opened Worthington Yards with Tim Callaghan and Darius Steward.
I caught up with Gent at the last “Watch It Wednesdays” – a new monthly event at 78th Street Studios that allows visitors a much more personal, immersive experience, and the chance to actually watch artists work and discuss their process. Because Gent doesn’t have a studio per se (she usually works in HEDGE gallery when they aren’t open to the public), she set up for the night in the SmARTspace area.
Laid out on the floor are two canvas, and an array of little paint jugs. I’m surprised to see everything laying on the floor, and am happy to learn that Gent has made some exciting changes to her painting practice. Let’s start with the paint.
In the past, Gent primarily used oils, but explains that recently she made the switch to latex house paint – local giant Sherwin Williams house paint to be exact. Each small jug has that familiar finger smudge of color on the lids, and the inevitable color swatches are lined up on the floor like an interior design project. I’m sure that some would turn their noses up at this egalitarian medium, but it’s the perfect vehicle for Gent’s new paintings (fun fact: Recent scientific tests have revealed that Picasso used common house paint…)
Using Sherwin Williams paints allows for much more control of her colors, and also has the added benefit of drying quickly – which is important because, as I’m sure you surmised already, the much more radical change to her technique is that she is now pouring paint directly onto her canvases on the floor.
She occasionally lays in some background colors with brushes, but otherwise, the entire composition is created by pouring. Gent explained: “The advantages are I don’t get caught up in the finite details, and I’m able to surrender a lot of the ‘control’ I have over painting, freeing up my mark making. I’m able to focus on color and layering techniques with less palette mixing and dry time.” Her favorite tool used to be the palette knife, but now it’s your standard plastic solo cup.
I asked her if it was daunting – pouring right on to the canvas, but she explained that embracing this new technique has pushed her out of her comfort zone – which is a good thing. I’m of course reminded of Helen Frankenthaler (her quote at the top of the article about risking an ugly surprise and trying something new pretty much sums up Gent’s attitude).
Like Gent, Frankenthaler was making easel paintings, but in the early 1950s, inspired by what I will call “The Elephant in the Room whose name is Jackson Pollock” – she started pouring paint onto unprepared canvases right out of the bucket. She called it her “Soak-Stain Technique”, because the canvas actually absorbed the thinned-out paint, often leaving strange halos and bizarre effects – “stains”. Later she switched to acrylics, which gave her more control, and allowed for a sharper edge when she poured. This kind of “controlled-spontaneity” is exactly what Gent achieves with her new canvases.
These aren’t abstract works, even though they could easily be mistaken as non-representational. Gent actually works from photographs – mostly taken from her kayak or on the beach by her house.