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A look at Alison Hiltner’s body of art

Villain Kit
Courtesy of Alison Hiltner
Hiltner’s super-villain kits offer special powers through the wonders of modern imaginary medicine.


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even an M.D., to see that artist Alison Hiltner is, in her own words, “fascinated with the medical and scientific realm.”

Her works, as varied as an organ donor vending machine and super-villain kits, abound with the medical and faux-medical. The kits are on view at Soo Visual Art Center’s “Home for the Holidays” show.

Also on view at the Soo is Hiltner’s “Persistent Adaptation.” The walk-in installation in the Toomer Gallery offers two objects that need little imagination to realize they are cellular-type organisms with microscopic fauna. Only they’re not microscopic. Spiky, yellow florets and lumpy red corpuscular oblongs spill out from the “cell walls,” onto the floor and up the walls. It’s at once playful and just the slightest bit menacing, as if it’s the beginning of a molecular march, destination to be determined.

Hiltner takes a self-confessed “layman’s approach” to the human body — what she describes as a combination of “wonder and ignorance.” You might think she developed her interest through a childhood gift of a microscope, or from a doctor aunt who let her play with her stethoscope when she was a kid. But she comes by her fascination with a fantastical view of science through pop culture.

The doctor who inspired her
“As a kid, my mom and I would watch ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dr. Who.’ I just thought, wow, these worlds are so wondrous and strange.” From those cheesy special effects (Dr. Who, for the uninitiated, made perhaps the most creative use of aluminum foil ever to grace an alien costume), she also may have gleaned her love of the found objects seen throughout her work. “I like to take something mundane, from consumer culture, and form it into something new. Like, here’s a toaster but it could be a … transporter.”

Hiltner’s work has already been shown at Spike Gallery in New York, the Minnesota Museum of American Art and the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago.

Though the Museum of Surgical Science is hardly a traditional fine art venue, she was tickled pink. “I had a great conversation with a gentleman who apparently does graphics for the medical industry; he was impressed at how right I got his work. And it was really cool to be able to show my stuff along with the real deal, like artificial heart pumps.”

Persistent Adaptation
Courtesy of Alison Hiltner
Cellular fauna creep up the wall in Alison Hiltner’s “Persistent Adaptation,” in the Soo’s Toomer Gallery. Best viewed after dark.

New direction
She says “Persistent Adaptation,” in the Toomer Gallery, marks a new direction for her, moving from making “questionable medical objects” to creating walk-in environments.

That said, the installation functions more as sculpture — discrete objects set down with little relation to the rather barren space they find themselves in — than as an entire environment. Seen at night, with atmospheric lighting, it creates a spooky presence. Still, her humor and inventive use of materials are evident. The big cell-like organisms are, it turns out, a child’s inflatable toy; the spines of the bacteria-like yellow florets are, on closer examination, un-inflated balloons, glued to stand straight up. It’s hard not to laugh when you figure it out.

“A lot of times I do start out with a mass-produced object. It’s so, so amusing when you can look at an object in a different way: ‘These balloons look so strange, like tube worms.'”

She says she is pleased with the piece, but certain configurations she initially envisioned proved untenable. “Logistically, you think you’ve planned everything. And sometimes physics and reality get in the way,” she muses. “I want to expand it, though.”

Hiltner will have a show at Art of This gallery in April. Let’s see what happens when she takes another crack at it.

What: Alison Hiltner, “Home for the Holidays” and “Persistent Adaptation”
Where: Soo Visual Arts Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Through Dec. 31. Open noon-6 p.m. Wednesday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-6 p.m. Friday and noon-4 p.m. Saturday.

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