Work of the Week: David Hilliard, “Wiser than Despair”

By on June 13th, 2022 in Blog, Work of the Week

David Hilliard
(American, b. 1964), Wiser Than Despair, 2012, C-print, 24 in. x 80 in. The Alfond
Collection of Contemporary Art at Rollins College, Gift of Barbara ’68 and Theodore ’68
Alfond, 2013.34.12. Image courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston.

The photograph Wiser than Despair by American photographer David Hilliard shows a father and son reading side-by-side, sharing a table but inhabiting different spaces. They are together but alone in their thoughts and, one guesses, in their lives. Part of that feeling is given by the multi-paneled composition – predictably reminding this art historian of medieval polypthics (multi-paneled altarpieces). That comparison emphasizes both the feeling of emotional distance between the subjects and the work’s narrative message. As the perspective shifts more or less obviously between the individual photographs, our eye follows it as if watching a movie, or constructing a story.

Although Hilliard’s works often reflect on his relationship with his own father, this photograph
is part of a larger project called The Tale is True and pictures a different father and son who
live on Cape Cod. Hilliard wrote: “I met Eric first, a young man who seemed lost and angry and
soulful and beautiful, and quickly discovered that he had a father who was also conflicted.
And suddenly a story unfolded of a father and son trying to maintain their physical and
emotional footing, and it seemed like the perfect balance with the photographs I was making
with my own father. I would go to the Cape and look at this house that was being lost to back
taxes, and photograph the space, and try to tell a story of loss and perseverance at the same
time. They are losing so much, but they still have a lot, including each other.”
The story shared by the artist here includes a crucial detail we could not learn from the
photograph itself: the impending loss of the house. Everything else, however, is rather legible:
a self-imposed, albeit tentative, distance between the two; a calm presence betrayed by a
certain tension; their uneasy, yet ultimately precious, togetherness. A togetherness that spells
“home,” as do the dog in the left-hand side panel, asleep on a favorite armchair, and the half eaten snack on the table. Eric has a look of intense concentration on his face and a pile of
books in front of him, as if he needs to read them all at once and absorb as much as he
possibly can: after all, he has a whole life ahead of him and wants it to count. The father,
more relaxed or perhaps resigned, is quietly flipping through a dictionary.

As I look at the photograph and think how much I miss that special light of winter mornings,
the wind from the ocean, and reading side-by-side with my own parents, I re-read Hilliard’s
last sentence: “They are losing so much, but they still have a lot, including each other.” That’s
where the true message of the photograph – aptly titled Wiser than Despair – lies: we ought
to be wiser than despair, no matter what happens or, importantly, how we perceive the world
around us. We can all take a break from worrying, from frantic news cycles and seemingly
endless bad news, and immerse ourselves in a work of art that calmly, beautifully, delivers
good advice with a dose of beauty and stillness.

Ena Heller, Ph.D.

Bruce A. Beal Director

See this work by David Hilliard on our Collection page.

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