Smile Politely

Hudson’s Better Angels emblazon the Giertz Gallery at Parkland College

The Giertz Gallery is the perfect setting for Steven Hudson’s Better Angels: a mixed-media extravaganza in bold strokes, fast and furious in color, but also quietly existential in Parkland’s exquisite gallery space. 

In my interview with Hudson, a Teaching Assistant Professor in the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the themes of post-apocalyptic hope and despair combined with a practical universality represented in the show’s forms and figures. Hudson noted, “the colors and harmony are combining in my work to create an impactful unsettling effect. The figures, the animals, the surroundings, littered as they are with our world’s leftover waste, combine to give the viewer, I hope, a sense of the spectacular.” Hudson’s work imagines the after-effects of the impending climate crisis but also provides hope for healing in ourselves and our world.

Walking into the gallery, you can’t help but be blown away by orange. Of course, it’s not just “orange.” The yellows and golds, the burnt siennas, the explosion of fiery reds in two of the largest works in the collection, Hotspot and Better Angels erupt from the pieces and grab you by the gut. “There’s a sense of chaos,” Hudson explained, “but it’s balanced by the serenity of the figures or the animals in the pieces.”

Fiery orange and red background behind several deer, drinking from a stream with an oil spill which bursts into rainbow colors.

Steven Hudson, Better Angels, 2022. Oil and mixed media on canvas. © Steven Hudson. Photo by: Amy Penne

Working with Giertz Gallery director and curator, Lisa Costello, Hudson said they wanted to utilize the space of the gallery as a teaching space for this particular show. “And that really interested me, as a teacher and an artist,” said Hudson. “What I love about having a show at Parkland is that it’s a truly community-driven space. The audience is more diverse than some galleries. I love the idea that a student learning to repair diesel engines will encounter this work. It’s work I think a student like that would appreciate.” Hudson’s Hotspot depicts the anarchy of cars on fire balanced with a calm figure in the foreground, hunched and gazing at the light emanating from their hand. Is it a student looking at a cell phone while the world is on fire? Is it two figures on the other side of the apocalypse? The viewer, whether it’s an automotive student, a dental hygiene student, or a student in Parkland’s Fine and Applied Arts program will walk away with his or her own interpretation. “And they’ll be ‘right,’” claims Hudson, who advocates strongly for the viewer to take what she needs from each piece.

Close-up of the figure in the painting to reveal the mixed media that makes up her hair, and the Airpods in her ear.

Steven Hudson, Hotspot, close up, 2022. Oil and mixed media on canvas. © Steven Hudson. Photo by: Amy Penne

I asked Hudson about one of the most striking pieces in the show, and one of his most recent: his oil on canvas, Self-Portrait. “I hope the viewer sees the sculptural quality. The figures are heavy and it’s darker in contrast to the brightness in some of the other pieces in the show. The figures in it, my dismembered head, a safety cone, and a raven. I don’t know if they mean anything other than what they are. But, like the other objects in the mixed-media work, they’re objects of the here and now.” Hudson wants the piece, and all of his work, to communicate mood and gesture. He works in big, physically bold strokes and motion which brings out the inherent drama of each piece.

Dark background with disembodied head and arm beneath a raven. An orange and white safety cone stands next to the figures.

Steven Hudson, Self-Portrait, 2022. Oil and mixed media on canvas. © Steven Hudson. Photo by: Amy Penne

As a viewer, however, you’ll linger up close to notice the literal litter Hudson brilliantly incorporates into the mixed-media. Hudson explained, “The assemblage of junk attached in the foreground at the base of the paintings is part of our tangible connection to the earth. Every piece of ‘junk’ there is something I found. Discarded remnants of our culture. Everything from the Airpods to the used plastic spoons. More disembodied elements to consider.”

The other pieces in this exhibit include a striking charcoal and mixed media on the front wall of the gallery entitled Afterimage #10. In it an extinct Tasmanian tiger stands next to two faceless figures in different states of repose. A gallon jug perches in the foreground, another reminder of our connection to daily objects. Hudson’s wall tag invites us to consider our work as an “imaginative species. Throughout history, material culture–visual, literary, theatrical–documents the imaginative process as it applies to existential questions, including what we might encounter at the end of life, of history, of the world as we know it.”

In the middle of the room sits Hudson’s sole sculpture: a porcelain piece entitled Unrest #1. Like his other work, the sculptural landscape here is heavy in the outline of the figure, but utilizing porcelain lends a delicacy to the piece, which posits a more distressed figure next to a small pitcher. What is the relationship between the uneasy figure and the pitcher? It’s a question you’ll ponder as you enjoy Hudson’s dazzling display of color, mixed media, sculpture, and the quiet dance of the deer in the title piece on the gallery’s back wall.

At the end of our interview, Hudson reiterated the teaching aspect of the show in its entirety. “Lisa and I wanted to show a real sense of artistic process. So my sketchbook is there for anyone to explore and you actually see some of the early drawings I did for the work in the show. There’s sculpture, charcoal, as well as bits of charcoal beneath the paintings so you can see the drawing process underneath the painting. We wanted students to see the process and for anyone to get a real feel for the artistic process and the building blocks of the work.”

Our February winter struck again and the reception for Hudson was postponed. You can attend the reception for Hudson’s show on Thursday, March 10th from 5:30-7:30. Hudson will give a Gallery Talk at 6:15 and the Cobra Lounge Trio will provide the music. Call 217-351-2485 for more information or go online to find out more.

Better Angels: Work by Steven Hudson
Giertz Gallery at Parkland College
2400 W. Bradley, Ave., Champaign
February 14th-March 29th 
M-W 10 a.m.  5 p.m.; Th 10 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sa 12 p.m.-2 p.m.
Closed: March 12th-20th (Spring Break)
Call 217-351-2485 for more information.

Top photo, Steven Hudson, Hotspot, 2022. Oil and mixed media on canvas. © Steven Hudson. Photo by: Amy Penne

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