Dil Hildebrand
Dil Hildebrand in his Montreal studio, April 2016. Photo: Bill Clarke
Dil Hildebrand in his Montreal studio, April 2016. Photo: Bill Clarke

Montreal-based Dil Hildebrand came to national attention in 2006 when he won the RBC Painting Competition. At that time, he was painting landscapes and architectural interiors, their perspectives often skewed in ways that made them appear vertiginous and uncanny. Since that time, Hildebrand has developed a  more abstract visual vocabulary, although even now he remains interested in architecture and how it relates to the body. Hildebrand is represented by Pierre-Francois Ouellette art contemporain (Montreal/Toronto), and has shown his work nationally and internationally in venues such as the National Art Museum of China (Beijing); the National Gallery of Canada; the Herron Galleries at the University of Indiana (Indianapolis); Union Gallery (London, U.K.); YYZ (Toronto), the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (Toronto). Magenta editor Bill Clarke initially met with Hildebrand last spring as the artist was mapping out ideas for two exhibitions that are now on view: the first at his Montreal gallery (until May 27) and the second at C24 Gallery (until June 30), which marks his first solo outing in New York. He will also be participating in the Bonavista Biennial in Bonavista, Peninsula, NL  this fall, and is mounting a two-person exhibition at the Art Gallery of Burlington in 2018 with Ontario-based artist Patrick Thibert. The following comes from an interview conducted  in May 2017.


You picked a good time to visit the studio because there was a lot to look at. When I start on a body of work, I put up as much as I can around me so I can think about it all visually, hence the walls covered in sketches and my worktable covered in materials. It’s kind of like chopping up a bunch of vegetables, getting all the ingredients together, without completely knowing what the resulting dish will be. A lot of these drawings are derived from geometric architectural forms that I’ve come up with, or by using simulations in Sketchup Pro, a rendering program used by architects, interior designers and engineers. The red and green collage with the white shapes marked with lines through them in the upper centre left stems  from a Sketchup drawing. A lot of the other examples here are tests of materials and attempts at figuring out what colours I want to use; at the bottom of the photo is me scribbling, trying to figure out what colour combinations I can get. So, a lot of these are potential threads. I won’t pursue all of these threads, but it helps with hashing out ideas.


When I first started, I more or less worked in traditional oil painting, using conventional gesso on canvas and traditional painting tools, and painting from photographs. I started to move away from that because I didn’t want to be copying all the time. I mean, the image itself is already done, there are no surprises even if you take liberties with the source image. The Leipzig school of painters – artists like Neo Rauch and Tim Eitel –  were big at the time, and I felt like I was catching the tail end of that trend and needed to  find my way out. Ironically, the RBC Painting Competition helped me emerge into the national art scene with this kind of painting right at the time I was ready to leave it behind. I felt it would be rewarding to turn around how I was working. Over time, I’ve become less interested in traditional approaches, which are in line with my previous experience as a set painter for the theatre, recreating decorative effects like marble or stone on scenery and backdrops. I wanted to start exploring different ways of producing colour, and the move to water-based media gave me access to colours that I couldn’t have in oil. For example, oil paints don’t come in fluorescent colours. It is interesting for me because it is a less secure way of imagining colour. Mixing paints on a palette… no problem… but mixing transparent colours is trickier. You can have a sense of the colour you want, but you can’t always nail it. The results aren’t as tightly controlled, but I’ve come to like that.


This children’s book relates to how I’m thinking about  producing the colours in my work through layering. The illustrations are silk screened using three-colour CMY, and I was inspired by that printing process of layering colours to producing other colours. So, unlike in my earlier work in which I was mixing paints to achieve colour, now I’m layering by applying transparent washes of colour overtop of each other to see what kinds of composite colours are produced. To the left are sketches of geometric forms I was going to superimpose on the colours. Again, these are all experiments to see what I could come up with.


When I speak about my work in relation to architecture, it’s about engaging the body. Architectural details like doors and windows are made in relation to bodies. The body is implied in my paintings and collages even though there are no bodies in them. In earlier paintings, like those in the and so on… series from 2013, the works were architectural, figural and sculptural at the same time. My work now is less about the object and more about passageways or arrangements of forms that you could somehow physically pass through if you were to step into them.

There is also the business of turn-of-the-century modernism, like Matisse’s cut-outs. I like Matisse because so many of his paintings have windows. I like the relationship between collage and the window motif. For me, windows are passages to other places. They can represent transformations, they are thresholds from one state to another, a motif going back to paintings of the Renaissance. It is an old conceit, but I like how a long-time symbolic motif like a window can be brought into the present. When we think of windows now, we think of computer screens. We are still looking at and through these apertures that take us to another place and away from ourselves. Windows are tools of the imagination. Painting with transparent colours on an acrylic panel provides a similar feeling of looking through something to another place. Like a window, such approaches to painting act as a bridge between the artwork and the real world we occupy in front of it.