Jeneese Hilton stands in front of one of her paintings on display at the Missoula Art Museum, explaining the symbolism on the canvas: two hands crossed in a gesture for censorship; a figure in the middle representing Lilith, the rebellious first wife of Adam; and the surrounding landscape—fiery brushstrokes of cadmium yellow and quinacridone red—that once was Eden. Hilton didn’t necessarily set out to depict this scene: a commentary, she says, on what could have been if Lilith, created as an equal to Adam, had remained his partner. Like most of her abstract impressionist pieces, the painting, titled “Crossing Hands,” evolved over time.
“I have a dialogue with the painting,” she explains. “I don’t know what I’m doing when I start, usually…As it progresses, the imagery and the colors and whatnot pretty much determine themselves.”
Hilton’s conversations with her work are long and involved. In her new exhibit, “Shadow Boxing,” she explores American Indian and Taoist ideas about the interconnectedness of living and nonliving things and holds them against the Judeo-Christian idea of the supremacy of man. This is augmented by a newer emphasis on Eastern concepts of impermanence, death and rebirth, and the cycle of life. All her work, according to her artist statement, addresses our beliefs about how we live with all species and “the impact our consequent activities have on the environment that supports this life.”
The title of Hilton’s exhibit is a reflection of her personal interests in and literal portrayals of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art and meditation exercise designed to help with the flow of life’s energy force, or Qi (pronounced “chee”), in the body. The theory of Tai Chi is that all living things are dependent on the flow of Qi striking a peaceful and healthy balance between the softer aspects of one’s Yin and the more rigid parts of one’s Yang. To achieve this mental and physical equality, a Tai Chi exercise asks the body to use spiral-like actions—extending and withdrawing, tight and loose, firm and soft.
Hilton’s artwork can be described in much the same way. Her symbolism is global and regional, her brush strokes alternately aggressive and restrained, her palette vibrant and muted. For instance, her piece “Janus Near Two Medicine” shows two horses side by side in a pasture, their necks craned around each other. At the intersection of the two horses’ necks, the open space reveals a Yin and Yang symbol—too subtle to catch without the artist pointing it out, but clear and evident once revealed. In another piece, “Sits in the Middle and Knows,” Hilton takes the opposite approach by veiling her Chinese influences—a particular Tai Chi move is abstracted with arms fractured and multiplied upwards, detached from a main figure. Every one of Hilton’s paintings is ripe with layers of meaning.
“It’s getting harder and harder for me to [create work],” she admits, referencing the hours of research on symbolism and religion and ancient history that compete for time with actual brush and canvas. “The painting is not the hard part, really. It’s that I can’t come up with the imagery. I spend so much time thinking…the Tai Chi helps me to focus.”
Hilton’s new exhibit is the third installment of MAM’s ongoing “Native Perspectives on the Trail: A Contemporary American Indian Art Portfolio.” But Hilton’s contemporary work is in contrast to that of the artists who preceded her—her work is not rooted in ritualistic Indian artforms like Gail Trembley’s multimedia basket-woven sculptures, and neither is her work a direct commentary on the lasting impacts of Lewis and Clark’s journey through Native lands like Peter Koch’s billboard-like prints. Although Hilton was raised on a reservation in Browning and currently lives on a reservation in St. Ignatius, she was classically trained in the fine arts in Montana, Colorado and Mexico. In addition to her studies, Hilton has traveled to the Makah Reservation in Northwest Washington, lived in an indigenous village in the Alaskan Arctic and served in the Peace Corps in Micronesia. Her work transcends any conventional or traditional American Indian formats.
“People need to recognize that American Indian artists are doing contemporary art, outside of traditional imagery, and that it’s vital and accessible and responsive and organic and it’s not locked in to any stereotype,” says MAM curator Stephen Glueckert. “We’ve wanted to feature Janeese’s work for some time and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.”
Hilton is sensitive to the issue of her heritage’s impact on her work and wants to make clear that many of her influences remain tied to Native traditions. The messages in her paintings deal with environmental and religious themes that overlap with primary American Indian issues.
“I have an eclectic, busy mind. The composition and content of everything I do comes from a lot of different things,” she says. “It’s not that I have given up on Native imagery…I just do more than that.”
Janeese Hilton’s “Shadow Boxing” will be on display at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery in the Florence Hotel through Saturday, May 21. On Thursday, May 5, at 7 PM, Hilton will present a slide lecture.