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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Don't believe your eyes
Stephen Hilyard specializes in the altered image
'50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast' plays with reality.
'50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast' plays with reality.
Credit:Stephen Hilyard

As exhibition titles go, "The Beautiful Lie" is a pretty seductive one. It's the name of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's show of work by British artist Stephen Hilyard, who is now associate professor of digital arts in the UW art department.

Yet putting this title on a show largely made up of photography begs the question: Hasn't photography always been a lie? For nearly as long as the medium has existed, photographers have been able to employ fool-the-eye tricks, making us believe in the unreal. One can argue that today's digital trickery is just a new wrinkle on an old face.

Hilyard - represented here by digitally altered photos, digital animations and an artist's book - plays with reality with varying degrees of subtlety. In the "King Wave" series, his manipulations are readily apparent. In these wide, panoramic photos, we see crashing waves that are green, topped by a blue-black sky. The photos are still immediately recognizable as ocean waves, but expectations for verisimilitude have been thwarted.

Underneath each wave photo, there is a smaller one that captures lettering on a curb: "Resthaven," "Haven of Peace" and "Garden of Ascension." These serene names, lifted from an L.A.-area cemetery, contrast with the violent natural imagery above them - but also suggest that all sound and fury ultimately leads to the same end.

In sheer numbers, the main part of the exhibition consists of photos from Hilyard's series "50 Views of H.M.S. Belfast," a World War II-era warship now docked in London as a tourist attraction. Each photo has a subtitle that references a name for the Virgin Mary: "Mother of Christ," "Mother Most Chaste," "Virgin Most Powerful" and so on, coming from the Litany of Loreto.

Hilyard intends this ship/Mary comparison as a metaphor for these inviolate, untouchable bodies, and on a certain level it makes sense: Ships are spoken of as "she," and a warship is a fortress for a nation, a ship of state. Yet on another level, layering these photos with religious symbolism seems unnecessary. The photos are rewarding enough in their own right; Hilyard has zeroed in on selected details, enhanced backgrounds and bathed the whole thing in glowing, better-than-real-life light. (He even spoke of "boudoir photography" in a recent artist's talk, which I think is a more appealing and readily apparent take on what he's doing.)

Elsewhere in the gallery, three video pieces play on a loop on a large, flat-panel screen. The most compelling is the hypnotic "One Life," which features bees buzzing around lush white tree blossoms. The visual space is so crammed with these digitally created bees and blooms, the effect is simultaneously natural and unnatural. It's so Edenic, and the motion of the bees so clearly controlled, that it's literally too good to be true. A beautiful lie, indeed.

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