People passing by the big windows at Open Satellite in Bellevue while Hilary Wilder was creating her exhibition applauded. They applauded a contemporary artist.
The New York–based Wilder was, after all, painting soaring Turneresque landscapes on the walls—a flashy act that defies the current stereotype of the artist as an unskilled intellectual. Even better, the applause is the art equivalent of a Pentecostal swoon. It's a devotional response to a show whose very subject is the fervent, speculative desire for life-changing experience. You couldn't have scripted it better.
Wilder makes murals of a sort. She paints on canvases, hangs them on the wall, and continues the scene in the spaces around and between them. A smoking field of volcanic eruptions is not contained in a frame; its plumes lick an entire wall. Rays of light shooting from parting clouds pass beyond the canvas to shine through concentric frames painted in fading hues on the wall.
Each of Wilder's large landscapes—The Edge of the Evening, The Great Day of His Return, and Nearer to Thee—is impressive. Intentionally so. Sometimes kitschily so, like a religious poster. Nearer to Thee, an adaptation of the 19th-century hymn said to be the last song played on the Titanic, is also the title of the show, which was curated by Seattle Art Museum assistant curator Marisa C. Sanchez.
In addition to the paintings are prints, including an array of small landscape photographs cryptically titled Two Sunsets That Changed My Life and Three That Didn't, and a video shot from a shore in Iceland, where the wind is so strong that it holds the incoming waves at bay. It looks like a digital manipulation, but it's real. Playing in headphones with it are Muzak versions of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" and "Bell-Bottom Blues" superimposed on each other. It's funny to find out that they're basically the same song, and yet each is still moving in itself—even in this cheapened version. You can lose yourself in these works, and at the same time maintain an awareness of their effect on you.
The hope for and expectation of transcendence in nature and art is the heart of romanticism, which Wilder invokes in complex brushwork including latter-day flourishes taken from Van Gogh and Pollock. She is an editorial colorist, assuming various attitudes in almost-vampy, almost-cheesy areas—but the irony is only almost. The paintings have an undergirding of sharp-edged geometric patterning that introduces architecture, wallpaper, and math to Wilder's hot, excessive surfaces. They bring to mind Sol Lewitt's paradoxical dictum that "irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically." Wilder has it both ways: rationality and irrationality, transcendence and demoralization. The result is a perfect, agnostic devotion.