On ViewRubber Factory
Follow Me Down
January 15 – February 27, 2022
Taking shape through glistening metallic scales and boundless oceanic interiors, Tess Bilhartz’s Follow Me Down grants viewers entry and exploration into a new terrain, yet offers no certainty of an escape. The show’s cruel allure references the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, famous for luring sailors to their deaths by bewitching them with an irresistibly charming song. Succumbing to their own temptations, victims jumped ship and drowned trying to find the source of the resounding melodies.
In Night Beach (2021), an imagined scenario captures a gaunt, water-nymph-like creature reclined on a shoreline. The contours of a grotesquely exposed spine veer into a thick, scaly mermaid-like tail with its fin submerged under a glowing surf. Turned with its back towards the viewer, the creature appears to have found some sort of contemplative bliss as it ponders far beyond its wet and apprehensive surroundings. In the most intimate drawing, Follow Me Down (2021), a similar part of the creature’s anatomy has been zoomed into, allowing a viewer to find meaning in each one of its heavily detailed and impressive scales. Several are striking and finished in gold-toned pencil and others are more uniform in a darker turquoise. Some scales are missing entirely, suggesting that this creature’s journey has been met with unexpected violence and danger. In I’m Gonna Make You Love Me (2021), Bilhartz depicts the creature frontally and close up, with its sharp teeth aligning the insides of a fish-like mouth. A wide grin may suggest the triumph of yet another sailor’s death, or may simply be a means of characterization.
Four of the six works are mounted onto fish-eye shaped aluminium plates that are finished in ovular and sharp edges. Follow Me Down and Invert (2021) are suspended from the ceiling and submerge into the gallery’s space from above. Exerting a type of pseudo-sunkenness, the heaviness of each aluminium-mounted drawing further acknowledges to viewers that they are navigating a space deep, deep below sea level. The aluminium spectacularly captures reflected light coming from both inside the gallery and from cars driving by on the street. The resulting flickers and waves of the light’s color gamut become reminiscent of the fleeting movements of fish and other enigmatic underwater life. The substrates’ sheen mimics that of nautical fauna’s slippery surfaces and sea inhabitants’ glistening skin.
Beginning with a black acrylic under-painting, Bilhartz maps out compositions on paper, before building elements up with colored pencil. She then fixes each layer with a transparent acrylic glaze and continues this process ten to fifteen times, creating a chalky, yet iridescent finish. Materials fade away, making it difficult to understand what mediums Bilhartz has used, echoing the ambiguity of the works themselves. Foreground and background elements blend and mutate as Follow Me Down’s lighting sequence spotlights all six drawings, revealing and concealing aspects of the artist’s process. Much like the peaceful and monotonous sounds of waves hitting a shoreline, an alleviation resonates from Bilhartz’s thirty-minute loop of syncopating green, purple, and blue hues that smoothly undulate and travel across the gallery, but is just another well disguised deception. Once light hits the drawings’ surface, not only are the works’ insidious and anxiety-inducing details exacerbated, but Bilhartz’s underwater terrors awaken at her own discretion.
The artist has long been interested in the supernatural and the mystical. Bilhartz’s allegorical tendencies and color palette borrow from various Tonalist and Surrealist painters, some such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, most widely known for his romantic and dimly-lit seascapes, and Remedios Varo, who often painted illuminated and majestic characters inspired by her early interests in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500). Bilhartz’s historical and painterly concerns are also combined with the intention to make gallery space disappear by choosing to create a moody world within a room instead.
Bilhartz’s amalgamation of uniquely abstract characters, immersive lighting, and specialized installation techniques create a tense sensorial experience that quickly morphs the show’s surroundings from comfortable to scary, fluid to frozen. Diving into a territory that is calmly familiar yet, for most, heavily unexplored, Follow Me Down is an alluring underwater fantasy full of longing, terror, and unexpected surprises.