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The Komodo Dragon: Gallery Representation the Slow Way

Jeriah Hildwine

If I had a spirit animal, it would be the Komodo dragon:  the master of the slow kill.  The Komodo dragon takes game much larger than itself by a rather unique method.  The Komodo dragon isn’t venomous. However, the Komodo dragon has rather poor oral hygiene.  It feeds on meat, especially carrion, and this gets stuck between the lizard’s teeth, festering and rotting, creating a mouth that is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.  It is this bacteria which kills the Komodo’s prey:  it rushes a deer or other prey item, bites it, and then lets it go. The Komodo dragon follows.  Slowly, after days or even weeks, the wound becomes infected, and the deer grows ill.  One day, sick and exhausted, the deer lays down to rest. The Komodo dragon, which had been following it, unseen, all this time begins to feed while the deer, still alive, is too weak to resist.

The Komodo dragon approach has worked for me in a lot of ways.  Take graduate school, for example.  I first applied to a handful of schools in 2002. I was actually accepted to one of these schools, but by the time I got the news, I had decided that I needed to go to a real “art school,” so I declined the invitation.  The following year, I applied to 19 of the best art programs in the country, and was waitlisted at two of them…but not ultimately accepted to any of them.  This was a disappointing setback, but I immediately began a new body of work, far better than anything I’d done before, applied again the following year, and was accepted to several excellent programs. I ended up attending the Hoffberger School of Painting, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

After graduating with my MFA in 2007, I moved to Chicago, as my wife, Stephanie Burke, had been accepted into SAIC’s MFA program in photography.  So we moved here, she started school, and I started looking for work. Within two weeks I’d been hired as a sales associate at an Ace Hardware location just a few minutes walk from my house. In the meantime, though, I was working on finding a teaching job, maintaining my studio practice, and securing gallery representation.  By Spring of 2008 I had picked up a few classes at LillStreet Art Center and Hyde Park Art Center, and the following fall I started as an adjunct instructor at Wilbur Wright Community College.

As soon as we’d landed in Chicago, Stephanie and I committed ourselves to familiarizing ourselves with Chicago’s gallery scene.  Each week, while I was working in the hardware store, Stephanie found time to come up with a list of what galleries were having openings that Friday.  I avoided working closing shifts on Fridays whenever possible, and we’d go out to the openings. After a while we started writing reviews for our blog, and between that and the fact that we showed up to pretty much all of their openings, the galleries got to know us.

I sent slides to a number of galleries –a select handful who seemed like good venues for my work:  Ann Nathan, Zg, Aron Packer, and Linda Warren. Of these, Zg and Nathan sent me polite rejection letters (Ann’s was handwritten!), and Packer invited me to bring some work by the gallery to show him.  I did so, and although it was pretty clear he wasn’t interested in showing it, he did provide me with some useful feedback.

Hildwine's "Zombie Hunter Stephanie," acrylic on canvas, 2012

Here’s where the Komodo dragon comes in.  I’d made my bite, introduced myself.  What I did NOT do was take these initial rejections personally, nor as the end of the discussion.  I still showed up to all the openings, even at galleries where I was pretty sure I’d never show my work.  For fun, I started blogging about the food and beverage offerings at the gallery openings:  the Snack Report, started on The Gallery Crawl blog and run, until late last year, on Art Talk Chicago. We tried some other blogging projects as well:  Monday Morning Quarterback, which were quick reviews of all the work we’d seen the weekend before, and the Red Dot Report, which were our notes on work that had sold. All the while, I was applying to group shows, and did some exhibitions in apartment galleries and alternative spaces.

My studio practice continued to develop as well, and was greatly informed by my teaching practice. Prior to teaching, I just sort of “messed with it ‘til it looked right,” a method (or non-method) that is common, and pretty effective, among a lot of very skilled and realistic painters whom I know. When I started teaching, I needed a method that I could easily explain.  I remembered a book I’d seen while I was in undergrad:  Joseph Sheppard’s How To Paint Like The Old Masters. I ordered a copy, and set about adapting Sheppard’s techniques to acrylics.  My interpretations of Sheppard’s interpretations of the Old Masters became the basis not only of my teaching of figure painting, but also of my studio practice.

All this allowed me to finally start making the paintings I wanted to make, the way I wanted to make them. As these pieces came together, I began to exhibit this work in group shows. All this time, I kept attending the gallery openings, and got to know some of the gallerists pretty well.  I very specifically did NOT harangue them about showing my work.  In fact, after I sent them the initial contact, I didn’t bring it up at all.

Eventually one of these gallerists, Linda Warren, asked me what was up with my own studio work, and wanted to come visit my studio.  This didn’t come out of nowhere:  I’d been attending nearly every one of her gallery openings for over three years, written about many of them, hung out, been cool, and most importantly, I was respectful of her time.  I didn’t talk business at her openings, and I didn’t press her to show, or even come look at, my work:  I sent her a link, a remained a part of the community, and eventually, she asked me.

Having a gallerist come visit your studio can be an intense experience; for a young artist especially, it’s easy to see it as the make-it-or-break-it career opportunity.  I just told myself to relax, and made sure the bathroom was reasonably clean and put a couple of beers in the fridge.  On the advice of a friend, I found an excuse to leave Linda alone with the work for a minute, so she could look at it without me looking over her shoulder.

She talked about some local collectors who might be into this kind of work, but when she asked about whether I was interested in selling the work, I mentioned that I’d rather show it as a complete body first. She told me that the main exhibition space was booked two years in advance, but that she could show some of the work in the project space, concurrent with Tom Torluemke’s show in the main space.  This was, in fact, exactly what I’d been hoping for. Gallery X (the smaller of the two rooms in her new space) is just large enough to accommodate the entire Living Dead Girls series, and the timing was just right for me to be able to finish the work to fill it.

Jeriah Hildwine, Living Dead Girls, opens at Linda Warren Projects (327 N. Aberdeen Suite 151) on Friday, April 27th, 2012.  Also on view will be Tom Torluemke, Ring Around The Rosie.