Tyler Hilton is not a conventional storyteller. In a mesmerizing combination of words and pictures, he is engaged in a narrative about a character with the unusual name of Minmei Madelynne Pryor. Minmei is a deeply unhappy individual, relentlessly self-critical and involved with her reluctant boyfriend, River Phoenix. His inconsistency is understandable since he has been dead for nearly two decades. That condition makes his occasional appearance in Minmei’s bed either a miracle or a violation.
That Minmei is also a proxy for Hilton does nothing to un-complicate his story. Nor does his fascination with River Phoenix. “River is this guy from Idaho who has an almost pan-sexual appeal. I identify as straight but I find him pretty attractive.” The layers, or deflections, keep coming. One drawing of the actor shows him naked in two sketched poses. He has about him an enchanting innocence, a child being father to the man his early death prevented him from becoming.
Hilton admits that in his three-part story (20 chapters, a prologue and some additional drawings will be on exhibition at Art Toronto in fall 2014 and at Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Toronto in spring 2015) the body plays a significant role. “A lot of the project has to do with bodily anxiety; the body is the primary way we are tormented and torment ourselves.” An etching for chapter 3 shows Minmei sitting in a waiting room, pregnant, and surrounded by people with genetic abnormalities, including two pairs of Siamese twins and a man with a grotesquely enlarged nose. (She will give birth to a doppelganger, a child who embodies an extreme degree of jealousy; in a later image the two Minmei’s will engage in an act of biting to the point of bloodletting).
The waiting-room piece is structured as if it were an altarpiece predella; it’s as though you’re stuck there, forced to walk around the circle, staring at the patients. “You have to wonder what it would be like to share a body with someone,” Hilton says. “It creates a sort of empathy and at the same time I don’t shy away from its being an initial gasping, repulsive thing.”
The series operates in an unforgiving way. It’s like Alice in Wonderland pitched onto a darkling plain where everything gets turned upside down. When Minmei wants to share her wonderful dream state with a friend, all meanings are reversed; food becomes vomit, sex becomes rape. Both worlds are ruined.
What is intriguing is the manner in which Hilton uses other narratives, whether high art (Goya, Hogarth and William Kentridge) or popular art (George Herriman’s Krazy Kat). In a study for chapter 12, Minmei lies on her belly in a dirty river, naked and clutching a brick. It’s the same object that Ignatz Mouse tosses at Krazy Kat, a dangerous symbol of misunderstood love. “In this series,” Hilton says, “Minmei is hauling a brick around a lot of the time.”
Tyler Hilton is hesitant to explain what is going on in his narratives. “In my case, the viewer plays a really huge role and I only want to imply and hint. Sometimes I am very explicit but I still want to be flexible, so you, the viewer, can take it where you want it to go. I want the work to be open to a lot of different emotional readings.” ❚