Soft Furnishing offers us a way of exploring the decorative as aesthetic category through a playful approach to paintings that both depict and perform interior design. Aware of the inclination toward despondency and passivity coupled to postmodern conceptions of surface and simulacra, Hillman’s work seeks to posit a reparative and engaging relation with contemporary painting by playing, here, with softness and signifiers of comfort in a way that’s neither snide nor reverential. Rather, he re-instates a joy in the material, interested not only in ‘the reality of the viewer that confronts the object, but also the reality of that object confronting the viewer’.
The work in Soft Furnishing deals with the commerciality of contemporary painting: Hillman is interested in the commonplace migration of a painting through a commercialised space to a domestic one. His paintings are both focused and extended by wallpapering and floor tiles that maintain the paintings’ language of strived-for softness whilst prompting questions as to the extent or power of their decorative effect, as well as of the artist’s sense of control in organising how his or her work comes to ‘end up’ in a space. The textures the work purports to represent – luxurious fabrics that tend to signify a person’s personal space and which, as Hillman points out, seem ‘un-hygienic’ when put in a social context – intimate overindulgence, but the wallpaper and floor tiles dramatise limit by both extending and dwindling the work. There is a deliberate overshooting at play here that illustrates an artist’s desire for control over the afterlife of their work by pre-instating this ‘death’ into life, the decorative already in the artistic.
Hillman, then, seeks to make the language of decoration as luxury, baroque and moneyed clear so as to dissemble it, obvious so as to confound it. The play between two- and three-dimensionality encourages engagement thanks to the work’s purported plushness and apparent tactility: you want to see them as real; you acknowledge your desire to suspend disbelief, feel the softness or fondness of your way of seeing. Whilst these pieces have been made using a semi-mechanized spinning drum created by Hilllman to harness a kind of industrially-produced effect, they are themselves oil paintings, blending and blurring therein a classical language associated with old masters’ uniqueness of touch.
Through this playful confounding of senses and traditions, Hillman moves towards an acknowledgement of the inherent potential in an artwork’s decorativeness, and seeks to free this as a rich and difficult category precisely thanks to its ability to accommodate conflicting impulses and associations. Through playing with the excessiveness of decoration, Hillman both dummies the potential commerciality of his work and points toward the incessant potential that inheres in any category that comes to be derided as incompatible with art.