Frank Hyder: Poet of a Threatened Eden is a 35-year retrospective of this Philadelphia-based artist, at Bill Lowe Gallery through April 30.
The arc of Hyder’s imaginative journey rhymes so organically with the stated goals of the late Bill Lowe that this is a singularly appropriate show with which to relaunch the gallery, now under Donovan Johnson’s direction.
It pays homage to Lowe’s aesthetic and philosophical intentions and is worthy of the late master himself in terms of emotional focus and dramatic staging in the placement of work. It is, start to finish, an excellently conceived act of creative continuity.
Hyder’s carved and painted panels, plus a number of 2022 works in other media, often derive their inspiration from the years Hyder spent in Venezuela, where he lived for many months atop a mountain in the Amazon rainforest. He also exhibited work extensively there. The large panels featuring closeups of faces tightly framed by leaves, in particular, seem the result of direct, attentive observation of indigenous cultures.
But they are anything but anthropological documents; the palette and the composition make clear that these are images straight from the artist’s unconscious. They are more akin to visions than to the type of portraiture so loved by travel photographers. Even when the flora seems familiarly tropical, its luminescent quality lifts it out of the realm of botanical taxonomy.
Hyder is out to enchant, and to re-enchant our relationship with a natural world from which we have long been divorced by denial. His goals are more shamanic than eco-touristic, as his portrait series titled Shaman would indicate. He wants to dig deep into viewers’ distracted attention spans and shake things up until we begin to see — and see differently.
This four-decade-long quest may not resonate with all viewers, but Hyder is determined to address only those who want to learn his language. His work works best for those who are willing to see cinematic tropes translated into a hugely hallucinatory realm that achieves its own sort of authenticity. His works were immersive before immersive environments became fashionable.
The earliest works in the show, from the 1980s, seem to stem in part from expressions of European myth-tinged models of unconscious processes, except for a Biblical-appearing “Prophet.” The archetypes migrate more unambiguously toward the tropics in succeeding decades.
In a sense, these earlier works could all bear the same title as one Symbolist-like piece of 1988, “Dreams and Memories.” But even when they semi-quote abstract patterns from Klimt or Redon (or the sources from which Klimt and Redon got those patterns), the dramatically luminous vision is distinctly that of Frank Hyder.
A few years later, Hyder is firmly engaged in an individualistic exploration of the threatened territories that were shaped by the European imagination and so often thought of as the Earthly Paradise.
Hyder’s spectacular sincerity is eminently evident. It is impossible not to be impressed by the consistency of his intentions and his vision over the course of decades. He has created work mostly in a type of chromatic bas-relief that is anything but commonplace in contemporary painting.
His visions may have a traceable path of kindred aesthetic and intellectual currents of thought and action, but his artwork itself is sometimes very nearly unique.
Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism.