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Untitled 17 Artist Profile: Hilary Greenstein

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

Hilary Greenstein does not know how many paintings are in her studio.

I’m so grateful for this abundance when I walk into a long, well-lit studio, covered floor to ceiling with paintings and warm, energetic color. Even more paintings are filed vertically at the back of the room near huge windows. I’m surrounded by pattern and texture, even in the upholstered furniture and Hilary’s working palette, covered in daubs of color layered over daubs of color and no sign of where the layers begin. The maximalism in this space is strong but never overwhelming; I feel comforted and enveloped, even in the middle of winter.

Hilary herself is just as bright and warm as their space. They are wearing a fantastic jumpsuit with the happiest colors and illustrations by Dreyfus, and incredible beaded earrings that I learn are made by fellow Untitled 17 artist, Erin Pena.

A square-shaped canvas with warm shades of mint green, orange, and gray with a feminine figure in the bottom right corner, from the chest up. The figure's head is outlined in mint green and they have a short, bob haircut that is chin-length. The figure is looking up and off to their right, and they are wearing a hot pink, collared blouse with a button on the lapel. The brush strokes are layered and there are drippings of paint in the background to the left.
“Manic Haircut,” Oil paint, acrylic, marker, and oil pastel on panel, 18" x 18", 2022; part of SooVAC’s Untitled 17

Hilary’s piece, “Manic Haircut,” is part of SooVAC’s annual flagship show, Untitled 17. Each year SooVAC works with a different, established juror to give artists the opportunity to work with highly regarded artists at any stage in their careers. This year, Alejandra Peña Gutiérrez, director of the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, selected 29 pieces from over 270 submissions.

Hilary’s work is somewhat figurative, and somewhat abstract. It occupies an intriguing space in between that invites the viewer into partially-formed scenes, evoking domestic spaces, but stopping just short of actually telling us where they are. The focus, instead, is on the figures. They are depicted warmly and lovingly; their bodies and gestures are celebrated in their variety and Hilary often incorporates a direct, confident, validated gaze at the viewer. These figures are mostly female, feminine, or of ambiguous gender, a conscious decision by the artist. Feminine and queer bodies, often depicted powerless under an oppressive gaze, get a chance to be entirely themselves and defiantly enjoy it in Hilary’s painted spaces.

Hilary draws inspiration from found images of strangers, usually vintage. She tells me that as she puts together their gestures and expressions in a piece, a narrative about them starts to form. The finished image might look close to the source, but more often, the figures take on their own story and features. Her main focus is the person or people, how their environment reacts and supports them, how the colors and materials recede and come forward to embrace them in the image frame. Backgrounds are often sketched in, incomplete, and suggestions of a space, vague enough to leave room for interpretation. Hilary uses varied materials as her canvas, incorporating collage as a starting point to respond to. Most recently, she has been working on velvet, a series she began in 2018 called “Keepers.”

Often, something feels missing or… “off” in each piece. “Embrace 3,” which was recently exhibited in Fresh Eye Gallery’s recent Halloween group show, Spellbound, shows two feminine figures, holding each other in a dance in the right bottom corner of a tall vertical canvas. But something isn’t right with the face of the figure facing us.

“Embrace 3,” Full image and closeup. Credit: Hilary Greenstein’s Instagram

“What’s going on with their eyes? Why am I scared of this?” I ask, and Hilary tells me this particular figure’s source photo was wearing a mask. These little mysteries are one of my favorite parts of Hilary’s work. In addition to suggestions of narrative and space, there is a whisper of something subtle, unknowable, and possibly sinister at work. I could look at each of these paintings for hours trying to figure it out. Their scale, ranging from smaller prints up to pieces that reach more than halfway to the studio ceiling, invites viewers to have a seat and do just that.

On the horizon for Hilary is more exploration of painting on velvet, as they get more comfortable with how the paint behaves and responds with the unique texture of the fabric. The beginnings of a self portrait are here as well, an anomaly among Hilary’s subjects; she tells me, “if the figures in this series [an upcoming series of pin-ups] can show their butts, then I can too.”

Catch Hilary Greenstein’s work at SooVAC in Untitled 17, on exhibit until March 25, and at the upcoming group show, No Yeah Yeah No at the Chicago Ave Fire Arts Center, opening March 29. If you’d like to see Hilary’s studio (the correct answer is "YES"), stop by the California Building’s open studios on March 11 from 11am-4pm.

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