Flesh Tones

The Old-World world of painting prodigy Luke Hillestad

Luke Hillestad has found his first gray hair. He’s just turned 30, yet the discovery clearly enthuses him. So much so that he goes fishing beneath the elastic of his stocking cap to show me. “I like the idea of going gray,” he says, rooting around for the relevant tuft. “It means better work is ahead. All my favorite painters did their best work in their later years.”  

Hillestad is entranced by age. Or at least the patina of age. Though he was born in 1982, he paints like it’s 1582, and his Old Masters-inspired canvases—figurative oil paintings, in which mystical narratives play out in spooky, candle-lit atmospherics—impart the anachronistic jolt of looking at something that is at once very old and very of the moment. His heroes are Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Titian. But his models are his friends, creative types in their 20s and 30s. To see such fresh, modern bodies inhabit a realm of Renaissance aesthetics—it’s a nice swerve from sanctity to sexiness.

“I love it when human flesh glows,” Hille-stad says. “There’s spirit coming through. I’ll be standing in a museum, looking at a Rembrandt, and the person in the painting seems more human than the person standing next to me. Painting can be something extra-real.”

His studio, a third-floor attic in a south Minneapolis church, is like a 16th century atelier. Brandy snifters gather on an antique desk. Taxidermied birds perch in odd places. There’s an old bookshelf, Hillestad’s “cabinet of curiosities,” crammed with vaguely occult objects: an ornately handled dagger, an old deck of playing cards.

And in the center of it all stands a battered easel amid a flock of half-finished canvases. Hillestad picks one up. It’s for an upcoming solo show, called Parables of Mutation, at Rogue Buddha. In it, a naked man crouches in a bird’s nest. The gloomy background threatens to swallow the composition. But the man’s skin gleams, cold and supple, as if hit by the light of some unseen moon.

It’s a fetishizing of the flesh. And it makes the work, like so many of Hillestad’s paintings, feel strangely Catholic, like a lost scene from the Stations of the Cross. It’s a complaint he sometimes gets from galleries. Too religious.

“Luke’s biggest talent is creating a narrative,” says Nicholas Harper, Rogue Buddha’s owner. An oil painter himself,  Harper sees Hillestad as representing a growing cadre of young students turning against the chilly gloss of contemporary art.  “The figurative work is just more guttural. People want that.”

Hillestad didn’t study art. At least, not in the normal sense. In 2006, after working as a land surveyor and then returning to school for a degree in music composition, the St. Louis Park native found himself playing in a rock band, trying to figure out what to do. The band broke up, and Hillestad, who had recently taught himself to work with oils by mimicking images he liked from art books and museum visits, decided to plunge into painting. One day he popped in, unannounced, on local art dealer Douglas Flanders.

“I was getting piles of resumes on a daily basis, and most people had no talent,” says Flanders. “I told Luke, ‘Next time you drive by with a painting, why don’t you bring it in and show me?’ So he did. It was a nice painting. I asked him to leave it.”

It sold within weeks—to Flip Saunders, former head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Flanders—who currently owns four Hillestad paintings and is negotiating  for another group of five—promptly offered Hillestad a solo exhibition, slated for the fall of 2007. It was his first gallery exposure. Hillestad hasn’t worked a full-time day job since.

Today, his collector base is international. He just shipped eight new canvases to Dubai. This May, he’s traveling to Paris to study for four months with Odd Nerdrum, a 67-year-old, Tourette’s-afflicted provocateur who’s currently embroiled in a tax-dodging scandal in his home country of Norway. Nerdrum’s surrealist, apocalyptic oil paintings—not to mention his anti-contemporary art-world eccentricities—have made him a guru of sorts to international talents like Hillestad: young artists enthralled by old ways of working.

Hillestad, though, doesn’t see his paintings as throwbacks. “It’s not things that are old. It’s things that are timeless.”

Hillestad survived a heart surgery when he was one year old—and then again when he was 11. “It gave me pretty early on the sense that life was fragile,” he says. His paintings, then, are perhaps a conjuring of life force—the great flesh glow that only oil seems capable of.

He un-tacks a postcard from a corkboard. It’s one of his favorite paintings, Goya’s Self-Portrait With Dr. Arietta. In it, the aging artist, deathly sick, sits collapsed in a chair. A young doctor brings a drink to his lips.

“Goya was on his deathbed, and Dr. Arietta brought him back,” Hillestad explains. “So as much as it seems dark, there’s a lot of hope, a lot of gratefulness. The painting actually embodies life.”

Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.