Staying in Touch with Tradition

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Luke Hillestad, “Wishbone and Suicide Note,” oil on canvas, 45 x 50 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016

Luke Hillestad draws heavily upon some of history’s greatest painters to create canvases that vibrate with life and give voice to the primal beauty of humankind.

Often considered one of the most malevolent painters in history, Caravaggio (1571-1610) established a career on fashioning intensely dark and dramatic pictures with fresh compositions. His artistic ancestor, Titian (1485/90-1576), created ripples across post-Tridentine Europe with a precise but expressive brushstroke that animated the surfaces of his paintings. Minneapolis-born painter Luke Hillestad often wonders what could’ve been, had Caravaggio lived past the age of 40 and adopted Titian’s expressiveness. And that is one of many ideas Hillestad seeks to explore in his own oeuvre.

Luke Hillestad, “Grotto,” oil on canvas, 68 x 51 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016
Luke Hillestad, “Grotto,” oil on canvas, 68 x 51 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016

During a period when abstraction is — and has been — in vogue, the classical Greco-Roman tradition of the Renaissance and Baroque prevails in Hillestad’s paintings. Under the tutelage of the renowned Odd Nerdrum, Hillestad has amassed an impressive body of work with an eclectic range of themes over his brief nine-year career. Undeniably born from the rhythmic surfaces of Titian and Rembrandt, and from Caravaggio’s penchant for the theatrical, works such as “Wishbone and Suicide Note” and “The Alchemist” have a timeless aura that could very well be mistaken for a 16th-century hand. “I am a kitsch painter,” Hillestad declares, an identification he embraces. In a recent interview with Nashville Arts Magazine, Hillestad suggested, “I am quite serious when I say that if my work is distinct from Nerdrum, Rembrandt, or Titian, it is accidental and likely for my lack of skill.”

Luke Hillestad, “The Alchemist,” oil on canvas, 42 x 42 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016
Luke Hillestad, “The Alchemist,” oil on canvas, 42 x 42 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016

Hillestad employs the palette of renowned 4th-century BCE master Apelles of Kos — a popular practice throughout history. “Martyr’s Lover,” for example, displays a balance and cohesion of color that results from a foundation of red, yellow, white, and black.

Luke Hillestad, “Martyr’s Lover,” oil on canvas, 31 x 39 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016
Luke Hillestad, “Martyr’s Lover,” oil on canvas, 31 x 39 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016

Themes centering on kinship, ritual, and wilderness come to the fore in paintings such as “Grotto” and “Victor,” highlighting an original and tightly knit bond between animal and human. Works like these reveal Hillestad’s skilled use of chiaroscuro to construct mysterious settings for his narratives. What is more, his figures have vitality, as they breathe and lift from the picture plane — the result of Hillestad’s intense illumination with high contrasts. For Hillestad, unexpected experiences often lead to a painting’s inspiration, “when there is a combination of sensuality and drama that grips me.”

Luke Hillestad, “Victor,” oil on canvas, 54 x 48 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016
Luke Hillestad, “Victor,” oil on canvas, 54 x 48 in. (c) Luke Hillestad 2016

To learn more, visit Luke Hillestad.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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