Life as we (don’t want to) know it

Alison Hiltner explores our inner nature

— If you’ve wandered through the home theater section of a Best Buy anytime in the last few years, you’ve probably caught at least a few minutes of "Planet Earth."

The Discovery Channel show, filmed in high-definition, is the near-universal choice of electronics retailers hoping to hypnotize shoppers into dropping thousands on a new HDTV set.

Alison Hiltner didn’t reveal the pixel count of her home TV, but she said watching the epic nature documentary recently lit up her high-resolution imagination. If you see something of the "complete, exquisite strangeness" of episode nine’s ocean coral in Hiltner’s new installation at the Soo Visual Arts Center, it’s no coincidence.

But in "Persistent Adaptation," installed in Soo VAC’s tiny Toomer Gallery, Hiltner’s subject is an inner world. Her lens is a microscope, not a movie camera.

If you’re one of those compulsive Purell users, be forewarned: Hiltner’s subject are the microorganisms, germs and bacteria that live in and all around us but remain unseen.

"We do have a symbiotic relationship with many of these things," she said. "We need bacteria in our bodies. We need those things to live."

And yet we fear them, too. The 21st century craze for everything antibacterial is evidence enough of that.

It’s an obsession that may have unintended consequences. Some research suggests the proliferation of antibacterial products has a survival-of-the-fittest effect on bacteria, killing off the weak bugs while leaving their stronger and potentially more dangerous cousins alive.

In a different life, Hiltner might have donned a white lab coat to test that hypothesis.

"I’ve been fascinated with the medical and scientific realm," she said. "It’s kind of like maybe at some point I wanted to be a scientist, but that took too long."

Instead, the Wichita, Kan., native went off to study art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There, she fell under the influence of Spanish-born installation artist María Velasco, an associate professor.

It was then the former painter fell in love with installation art and sculpture. Ever since, her works have pushed beyond two dimensions.

"I like the idea of creating a cinematic experience," Hiltner said.

In the Toomer Gallery, Hiltner shrinks viewers down to single-cell size, small enough that they might shake hands with the two bulbous microorganisms she assembled from candy-colored plastic objects.

If they had hands, that is. Hiltner’s sculptures are imaginary creatures, but they include enough pseudo-biological detail — tube-shaped fronds, dimpled organelles — to be plausibly lifelike.

Still, they are benign, cartoon versions of microbes. Like Pixar’s animated rat, they are abstracted enough from their real-world counterparts that there’s no shiver of revulsion, no urge to leap up on a chair and scream.

If Hiltner created an environment comfortable enough to linger in, she has succeeded. After all, she wants us to spend time thinking about these little creatures living, dying, adapting and evolving — even inside that strange ecosystem that is the human body.

"Persistent Adaptation" by Alison Hiltner runs through Dec. 31 in the Toomer Gallery at Soo Visual Art Center, 2640 Lyndale Ave. S. 871-2263.

Art for the holidays

You can’t make the trip to Soo VAC without wandering through the main gallery, too. See something you like? Take it home.

"Home for the Holidays" is the gallery’s annual holiday exhibition and art sale. Many of the artists featured this year will be familiar from past Soo VAC shows.

Hiltner contributes her Super Villain Start-Up Kits, each in its own clear plastic carrying case. (Collect all four!)

Looking for a ray gun or a pair of "Hypnotic Control Goggles" to take over the world? Hiltner’s amusing, tongue-in-cheek sculptures might not topple any governments, but they would look good on any evil mastermind’s shelf.

Other potential presents include the dream-like confections painted by Jen
Davis and street-inspired art from Deuce 7, who made his mark on New York’s graffiti scene earlier this year.

Continue the shopping excursion next door at Highpoint Center for Printmaking, where the cooperative’s 12th biannual exhibition and sale opens Dec. 7.

"Prints on Ice" features work from more than two dozen co-op members working in a variety of styles and printing techniques. Prints range from near stocking-stuffer size to too-big-for-the-sleigh, with prices starting at $50.

"Home for the Holidays" runs through Dec. 31 at Soo Visual Art Center.

"Prints on Ice" runs through Jan. 12 at Highpoint Center for Printmaking, 2638 Lyndale Ave. S. A free opening reception is 6:30 p.m.–9 p.m. Dec. 7. 871-1326.