Milk and Bones
“Face to Face” with Painter Allison Hill-Edgar
Allison Hill-Edgar has always been curious about what lies beneath: beneath your skin, beneath the microscope, beneath the surface of water, or at least the surface of the milky water mixture into which she submerges her subjects, from whose semi-opacity their limbs softly, hauntingly emerge.
While her career may look non-linear at first glance (she received a BA in art history, an MD, and an MFA––in that order), it has been this intense and consistent interest in introspection, in the literal sense of the word, that proves that this career careening has always been part of the plan. As the artist says herself, “the pathway has been a little convoluted––except it hasn’t been… I’ve been an artist my whole life.” And in some ways, she has also always been a scientist. After all, it is an acute interest in and attention to detail that characterizes both professions.
Though Hill-Edgar was pigeon holed as an arts person early on (somehow the American education system is not too keen on the interdisciplinary), science always held a particular appeal to her––since she was a child she has enjoyed pulling things apart to see how they work. So after a lengthy hospital stay post-college, it became increasingly clear that medical school would be her next step.
Peek beneath her resume, however, and you’ll find that her two careers “do have a common thread” as they both “have to do with female bodies.” Though it might seem that the days of the academy where young acolytes paint a live model are behind us, by focusing on the female body the intersection of human anatomy and figurative painting remains searingly vital.
A pre-Renaissance understanding of the female body insisted that “women just have a uterus smacked on top, two grapefruits smacked on top.” And while this idea has certainly evolved since then, “men are ground zero…the baseline,” and as a result the female body is still sometimes thought of in uncomfortably antiquated ways. (If you look into some pharmaceutical trials you’ll find that women are often excluded as test subjects because of their hormone cycles.) These days, when the female body is not the center of controversy, the site of degradation, or an arena in which male power is displayed, it can be ignored, thought of as too complicated, too abnormal, too inconsistent for thorough study. It is no wonder that this is the place that fascinates the artist, who bristles at broad strokes and is only satisfied after thorough investigation. As a scholar of the history of both art and medicine, she is uniquely positioned to flesh out these misconceptions.
But for all the attention on the female body in the #MeToo era, Hill-Edgar’s work is careful to address her subjects as a whole, not just as a political fighting ground. When she paints a woman, the current headlines might inspire her, but they are certainly not all that is present. “My female nudes are all about my bond…with these women. It’s just about two women being together…There’s always that undercurrent of respect.” Unfortunately, “so many people in America are uncomfortable with [female to female bonds],” that the simplicity of this visual statement can’t help but be a political one. For all of us women who have had close female friendships, however, we know that respect between women is as ancient as time––it’s just that not many have bothered to depict it. This is perhaps where Hill-Edgar the artist is most like Hill-Edgar the doctor, as opening up sites of complication is precisely what a doctor ought to do. Diagnosing a problem and using the tools available to fix it… it’s all in a day’s work.
Of course, once we understand the social and political circumstances surrounding female bodies, what we’re left with are still human bodies, with all their endless complications. Any attention that is paid to them must go beyond the simple reality that our subjects are female. The story begins rather than ends with that fact.
So with the female body as canvas, Hill-Edgar explains what fascinates her: “Bones and muscles are great, but they are just what get us around… I’m more interested in the organs… the fluids.” (She did train to be an internist, after all.) This partiality to the ooze and the goos might account for why she has chosen to submerge her subjects in bathtubs full of water mixed with two quarts of milk. The effect she achieves with this technique is one of translucence, an eerie feeling we are seeing the fragility of life depicted in paints. “We’re all somewhere between alive and passing,” and this liminal state is what captivates Hill-Edgar. “The transition point is the exciting part,” she says, and while she seems to be referring to where her subject’s limbs or face begin to solidify as they approach the surface of the water, she could just as easily be referring to that drawn out space between birth and death––in other words, life.
While for the most part seeing a skeleton is an indication of sickness or injury, and translucence of the skin a sign of age or malnourishment, Hill-Edgar’s liminal evokes the subliminal, that nagging feeling that we are more fragile than we believe. That living and breathing are a hair's breadth away from their opposites. This doesn’t seem to be morbid for the artist, but rather gives her work a vitality that a traditional portrait lacks as it hangs collecting dust––a reminder of the death of its subject whose life it was meant to celebrate.