Hill makes artistic virtues out of some of the primary technical faults that beset photography. In fact, anything that counters photography’s claim to being a transparent window on the world, a perfect index of reality, he regards as both a new expressive opportunity and a clue to the true nature of the medium itself—artificial, constructed, and as imperfect as any other.
In the past, an artist with Hill’s proclivities might have worked with cracked glass plates, poorly mixed chemical baths, overexposures, darkroom leaks, inappropriate lenses, outdated film, or other aspects of mechanical, analog image-making. But Hill is interested in analyzing and redirecting the dominant image-technology of our day: digital photography. To that end, he focuses on two common “mistakes”: soft focus and false exposure.
Soft focus occurs when Hill knowingly slows the shutter speed to capture his subjects in blurred motion, thus evoking the unceasing flow of time—a disavowal of the common notion of a photograph as a single, perpetually frozen moment.
False exposure is the photographic record of any energy other than light. To understand this phenomenon, one must bear in mind that a digital picture is created when photons bombard a sensor, knocking electrons into the pixel ports. Ordinarily, photographers strive to adjust the camera mechanism so that the intake of light and the subsequent readout of data correspond (imperfectly but convincingly) to an instant of human sight. But anomalies can result from at least three causes: stray electrons within the camera itself, heat that excites them, and so-called “cosmic noise” from the other electromagnetic radiation that surrounds us, whether from communication devices, living bodies, the earth’s electromagnetic fields, the sun, or other extraterrestrial sources. These intrusions generate digital “artifacts,” random amorphous shapes in the digital images—reminding us that the visible spectrum is only a small portion of the radiation, the ocean of energy, in which we are constantly immersed.
Hill embraces these technical imperfections, which conventional photographers abhor, and emphasizes their formal ambiguity by enlarging his images to the scale of paintings. He prints the pictures on Japanese paper that is then applied to canvas or painter’s board, sometimes enhanced with acrylic brushwork, and overlaid with varnish. The subjects—landscapes and seascapes, urban scenes, human figures—have a generalized, timeless quality. In their finished state, the works convey many of the visually oscillating effects of pointillist painting—and indeed are frequently mistaken for such.
Conceptually playing upon that provocative uncertainty, the artist usually creates one large-scale work (often 60 by 40 inches, sometimes 72 by 96) and a limited edition of smaller copies. Thus he evokes the uniqueness of hand-wrought one-of-a-kind painting, while at the same time acknowledging the multiple reproducibility of photographic images.
These procedural strategies align Hill with a widespread, process-orientated reconsideration of the core nature of photography—a new development that embraces such practices as Alison Rossiter’s work with expired photo papers, Sam Falls’s exposure of photographic prints to the elements, Richard Mosse’s transformative use of lens filters, and Wade Guyton’s explorations of the irregularities of photocopy transfer to canvas.
Experiencing the Work
Hill deals repeatedly with modes of human perception and consciousness. In each series, he considers how a mind, dependent on limited senses and ensconced in a particular body, can nevertheless apprehend a reality far beyond itself. The subjects themselves—mannequins, bridges, doorways, bridges, landscapes, ocean waves, passing people—often evoke the dilemma of what, in the contemporary world of sensory overload, to take into our awareness and what to leave out. Each Hill subject is reduced to its timeless formal essentials, each somewhat flecked and blurred as though by an expressive painter.
But this is not visual disruption so much as a suggestion of the aura-like energy that every physical entity—whether person or thing—continuously radiates. The artist, not surprisingly, has expressed admiration for British photographer Christopher Bucklow’s silhouette portraits of seemingly radiant individuals. Hill holds that modern physics and ancient Eastern spiritual belief concur on this point: that the universe, from the vast cosmic domain to the subatomic, consists almost entirely of empty space traversed by energy—a force that sometimes coagulates into the objects and beings we are able to crudely discern, even as we ourselves are part of that eternal flux.
These intimations invite us to consider what lies beyond the artist’s visually buzzing images, beyond all material phenomena, beyond sight itself. Hill refers to this wonderment—the ultimate goal of his art—as an experience of the sublime, a truth that transcends reason.
Richard Vine is the Managing Editor for Art in America.
He has taught at such institutions as the School of the Art Institute
of Chicago, the American Conservatory of Music and New York University,
and has served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review and of Dialogue: An Art Journal. His articles on art, literature, and intellectual history have appeared in numerous journals, including Salmagundi, Modern Poetry Studies, and the New Criterion. He is author of the books Odd Nedrum: Paintings, Sketches, and Drawings (2001); New China, New Art (2008); and SoHo Sins (2016).
“I seek to use the camera,” Sol Hill has written, “a device built to fix a perception… to deliver a certain freedom from fixed perceptions.” Many photographers, and visual artists of varying stripes, have exploited the camera’s vast potential for slippage. Hill, however, has concentrated on this aspect of the tool we use to record what we see. He does not seek to record what is around him, but to re-present it, to build on a misapprehension of it, until what emerges is as mysterious and as subjective as we might expect any hand-rendered image might be.
In the analog era such camera-painting would result from an artist’s deliberate interference or by happy accident. These days it is at once easier and harder to achieve these effects: the programs that perfect our pixelated captures, after all, are as capable of degrading as upgrading them. Hill exploits the extreme conditions of digital photography, discovering new means of image-failure and determining ways of reconstituting such failure into pictorial success. That is, Hill liberates the subject from the exactitude of its electronic captor by sabotaging the new technology’s reliance on meta-information: he doesn’t have to manipulate the machinery, but only subvert the data – a task Hill allows the machinery and the data both to do for him.
The “noise” that pertains to all electronic information, plaguing us around the edges of our computerized lives, is what Hill has set loose in his expansive experiment. Digital noise, as Hill notes, “is false exposure that occurs on a digital sensor from energy sources other than light… by moving electrons into the pixel ports” of the digital mechanism. Three energy sources produce such false exposure: heat produced by the sensor, electrical current endemic to the circuitry itself, and “cosmic noise,” produced by the rest of the of the electromagnetic spectrum. This latter kind of false exposure, cosmic in its metaphoric as well as electronic resonance, most interests Hill: the distortions it manifests can be said to portray both the earth and the universe in a grain of sand – or, more precisely, in so many grains so much smaller than a grain of sand. In fact, cosmic noise is produced, in Hill’s words, by the “energy signatures other than visible light that emanate from our sun and the various frequencies that emanate from the geologic material in the earth at any given location, as well as the Schumann resonance of the earth itself and all the energies of human communication technologies,” as well as the electromagnetic fields we each produce naturally, detectable at short distances. Thus, cosmic noise is, literally, the distorting imprint left by the human race, the globe it inhabits, the star that is its chief source of energy, and the infinity of stars encompassing them all – a group self-portrait of the universe.
Cosmic in origin or not, the garbled images that result seem to us impressions rather than optical reports of their subjects. Our world does not “look” like this. But it can seem like this. Whether we understand our surroundings through the distortions of artists or the distortions of our own pitifully inaccurate eyes, we know that things can very easily appear very different than they feel or seem to be. “Besides,” Hill notes, “the physical universe is really not very physical… it is mostly energy bound up in relationships that give the sense of solid reality.”
Hill’s images represent mistakes in seeing – but not mistakes in perceiving. His photographs replicate light and space, shape and movement, not as they merely are, but as they seem to be. Like a painter, Hill makes sure that the condition of error maintains, and maintains evenly, throughout every part of every image; as a result, their misregistration reads as a kind of hypervision, an alternate way of seeing that reveals things in and about the world that the world doesn’t usually allow revealed.
In this regard, Sol Hill follows the lead of the surrealists, their photographers not least. They regarded the slippages and failures of image-bearing devices as provocations to psychological and cultural insight. Like them, Hill comprehends the queered results of misfiring mechanisms as windows in our waking world onto the dream condition. These photographs, whether programmatic (as in the “Token Feminine” series) or seemingly random (if still thematically coherent, as in the “Sublime Noise” pictures), do not simply revel in an alternate opticality born of technological transgression; they harness that opticality to the production, or at least revelation, of another reality. Derived from the myriad signals the universe and its grains of sand send to us, it’s at once a higher reality, an alternate reality, and an additional reality, a way of expanding sight.
Los Angeles, October 2013
Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and art critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A. Weekly. In New York he served as art critic for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and he is the former editor of Visions Art Quarterly. Frank has organized and assisted with numerous theme and survey exhibitions for such prestigious institutions and organizations as the Guggenheim Museum, Independent Curators Inc., The Alternative Museum, and Artists’ Space in New York; the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid; Documenta in Kassel, Germany; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art (LAMoCA), and Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He has published numerous books and catalogues, the latest a monograph on the painter Robert De Niro, Sr.
Sol Hill’s photography-based work captures images from the world and shows us an alternate vision, full of errant visual incident and covert meanings that usually lie just beneath the surface. The artist allows both reality and his own feelings toward it to reveal themselves with an unexpectedly poignancy. His process is both technological and poetic, showing the limits of the visible and the possibilities of seeing beyond it.
Noise is comprised of two distinct series, Token Feminine and Sublime Noise. The series have divergent imagery, but they share a common process. Hill takes photographs, and then permits a variety of digital noise – extraneous energy in the form of light, heat, or cosmic rays – to affect the image. With a large-scale print, the digital noise is manifested in randomized colored pixels, along with long exposures and blurring, which result from the movement of the subject or the camera. Varnish or acrylic gel textures the surface of the final images.
In the series Token Feminine, Hill’s photographs of female mannequins critique these icons as idealized marketing tools. Indeed we are not sure if we are looking at women or at plastic stand-ins. The figures are often back-lit abstractions, with the head either cropped off or never there. The effect is of disembodied wraiths, somehow enduring despite the ravages of light and technological depredation. The figures range widely in mood and the degree to which identity is lost, preserved, or transformed. Cinematic and painterly, they are dream-like images: a bikini mannequin bathed in lurid, red light, her breasts glowing gold; a tall figure beginning to dissolve in the glare of white illumination and honeyed shadows; a woman in white seen against a darkening sky and a bright sunset.
Sublime Noise is a series of images that imply a kind of passage between states of human existence. The figures, in a variety of dramatic settings, are transfigured by light, their identities subsumed in a field of scintillating particles. In Mystery [The Via Negativa], a lone figure, like a character from a Beckett play, stands on a mottled surface melting into air. In The Cloud of Unknowing, a man seems to advance down a long staircase, surrounded by curving waves of green light. Self Reflection features an indistinct figure framed within a mirror’s bright reflection, an apt image for the self that is always shifting and impermanent. In all of these images we are confronted with an existential mystery, a life brilliantly present but only temporarily here.
John Mendelsohn is a painter who has written articles and reviews on contemporary art for ArtNet, Cover Magazine, dArt International and The Jewish Week, as well as essays for exhibition catalogues. He teaches in the Studio Art Program at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He has contributed to the forthcoming book, A Book of Images: Reflections on Symbols, to be published by Taschen in conjunction with the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism at the C.G. Jung Institute, New York.
Photographer Sol Hill grew up in a gallery setting. His father was a sculptor, his mother a curator; they filled his world with an alchemical language of postmodern signs and symbols. For Hill, the artist’s life has been a process of parsing and pondering the sub-textual inferences of places and spaces he calls the ‘sublime noise of existence.’ Signal From Noise, his first major Los Angeles exhibition, opens at the Leica Gallery showroom in March.
“Most photo-artists spend all their time trying to get rid of noise, Sol uses it in an avant, painterly way,” says Leica Gallery curator Annie Seaton.
A tall, lanky dark-haired man, hobbled out from the bird cage elevator in my West Hollywood pied-à-terre, and despite a sprained ankle, he juggled two big boxes of photographic prints, with a wry and endearing smile. As we sipped Darjeeling tea and ate chunks of black chocolate, I marveled at the photographs Sol gently placed before me. Each arrived as if from a spirit world, seeming to come at me from another time and place. Nostalgic polychrome prints pushed and pulled from another epoch. Hallucinogenic lipstick smears of a taxi’s red tail- light on a woozy '60s New York street came out of his Urban Noise box. Then he showed me the florid prints of flowery dresses from his Token Feminine box, the two bodies of work being shown at the Leica Gallery.
Token Feminine are Sol’s impressions of shop window mannequins caught up in a joyous riot of cacophonous colors that imprint as a meta-reality. This artist’s token fems are just that – not real women – but icons of women, tokens, posing in shop windows. With a deliberate, measured technique, Hill anoints his printed canvasses with brush strokes of varnish and glazes applied like a painter.
Craig Anderson, who is curating Suspicious Privacy, a future Hill exhibition, thinks “Sol dismantles then dissipates the conventions of digital photography. His work has a different power and presence.”
Sol Hill is a digital wizard. For Hill, the sensor in the camera is a wand gathering in energy forces; photonic, magnetic, electronic, radiant, and other ambient emanations are all waved through for capture. His is a magician’s sophisticated use of technology sifted through a humanist’s highly romantic vision and written in the alchemical language of his childhood.
Hill defines digital noise as, “an artifact of false exposure produced by energies other than light.” He records all the cosmic rays; the seen and the unseen.
“Sol wants to be exhibited in both traditional and non-traditional venues,” says Janie Hewson, a creative consultant helping artists focus their exhibition goals. “Hill wants to be collected by individuals who are interested in conceptual, emerging and futurist art.”
In an essay about the artist’s work, Peter Frank, Fabrik magazine’s Associate Editor writes, “Sol Hill’s images represent mistakes in seeing–but not mistakes in perceiving. His photographs replicate light and space, shape and movement, not as they merely are, but as they seem to be. As a result, their misregistration reads as a kind of hyper-vision, revealing things about the world that the world doesn’t usually allow revealed.”
Hill manipulates the human fallibility of perception to wring out his mysteries. He works in a poetic realm, filtering light, color and a multiple array of cosmic interferences.
John Mendelson, New York painter and art critic, states, “Hill treats reality in a transformational way; reality becomes a vehicle for his personal vision. He creates a simulacrum...a phantom, eaten away and dematerialized by light, presenting us with a pixilated presence to pense the world in an existential way.”
The sense of disconnection, dislocation, and disorientation artists feel when confronting the universe—a hallmark of Hill’s photography—is poignantly realized in Mystery (The Via Negativa), from a third body of work called Sublime Noise. A lone figure tentatively stands before an abyss, or perhaps a theatrical stage, evoking the trembling and yearning for something we all share: peace, release, or enlightenment.
Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute,
a member of the Photographic Arts Council and an artist member of the
Los Angeles Art Association. He curates exhibitions in Los Angeles and
writes about contemporary art for Fabrik Magazine. His writing and photography have also appeared in the LA Times, the LA Weekly, The WOW Report and American Photo Magazine. His book, Going Down On Cuba: Notes from an Underground Traveler, is slated to be published in 2018 by Fabrik Press.