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Murals Alongside the Merchandise

NEW YORK — Artist Malcolm Hill finds his canvas in “forgotten” pockets of retail space.<BR><BR>“Certain areas of stores, especially in larger stores, need an injection of energy,’’ Hill said in an interview....

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NEW YORK — Artist Malcolm Hill finds his canvas in “forgotten” pockets of retail space.

“Certain areas of stores, especially in larger stores, need an injection of energy,’’ Hill said in an interview. “Generally, I like to put a mural in a place that looks a little forgotten, because there can be such intense merchandise activity in other parts of the store.”

He added, “But there is also a lot of opportunity to merge a mural with the merchandise. That must be done very carefully depending on the vendor. It can be touchy. It can be political. It’s less controversial when you find a space that’s untended.”

A native of Waco, Tex., Hill, 52, has developed an unusual reputation. He’s a retail muralist, primarily for high-end stores, though he works in a variety of media, creating window displays and backdrops, artwork on casework, illustrations for magazines and catalogues, and sculpture.

He started his career as a window designer at Neiman Marcus in the early Eighties and subsequently began a freelance business painting window backgrounds at such fashion stores in Texas as Stanley Korshak, and the former Lou Lattimore.

Eventually, Barneys New York commissioned him to do murals and window displays. Hill has also done sculptural pieces for Bergdorf Goodman, and has added creative touches to By George and Jonathan Adler, among other stores.

Hill’s latest mural sets the tone for the Jens Risom furniture show at the Ralph Pucci International showroom, on 18th Street here. Pucci commissioned the 88-year-old Risom to create a collection of tables, sofas, benches and chairs, and then contacted Hill.

“Ralph wanted me on that project because he felt my work would go very well with Jens Risom’s aesthetic,” Hill said. Risom, legendary for being among the first to bring Scandinavian craftsmanship to the U.S., has redesigned his midcentury classics for the Pucci showroom. Pucci is also displaying prints by Julian Schnabel.

Hill’s 14-foot-by-16-foot mural depicts Risom’s initials, though they’re sublimated in the design and not obvious at first glance. It reflects Hill’s philosophy about integrating with, and not upstaging, the surroundings. It’s about creating artwork that jibes with the display.

With the Pucci mural, “It was important that the colors not overpower the furniture,” Hill explained. “The show is about Jens’ furniture. The mural should sit back and mind its own business, which makes for a very appealing kind of challenge — to make it interesting and not obnoxious. It sets the mood.

“When you study the mural, you see the initials are there. But you don’t have to see it that way. You can see it on several levels. There are a lot of other things to look at besides the initials. It makes the design more accessible. I really enjoy that abstraction process.”

As an artist, Hill seems unusual, though not simply because of where he chooses to work. He enjoys the collaborative process required in the retail setting. “I like working for a predetermined context and making the piece fit into the architecture,” Hill said. “When you are working with really good people, and you are all on the same wavelength, there is a cool synthesis of art and design.”

He’s also unusual because his main medium has been latex house paint. “It’s been incredible,’’ Hill said. “People are always surprised that’s the medium. It’s been really successful because it’s durable. It’s also very fast to work with. I use a matte surface. I always use flat paint. It takes the light and fits well into the environment.”

Hill lives and works in New York, but has another studio in Montana, in what was once a Swedish Lutheran church. Murals, he noted, are more commonplace in theaters and office building lobbies, than in retail settings. “It’s the nature of the [retail] beast,” Hill said. “In stores, there is so much being thought about, and so much being planned. Then there are budgetary constraints.”

Generally, only a small percentage of the store’s square footage is suitable for accommodating artwork, and then utilizing artwork to enhance a store’s environment is rarely a priority. “It’s the last thing people are worried about, and then it’s really in the domain of the high-end stores,” Hill said, citing Bergdorf’s, Barneys and Neiman’s. Saks Fifth Avenue also puts a premium on art.

“It depends on the overall kind of vibe,” Hill suggested. “If you have a designer boutique, you don’t see murals very often in that kind of situation because it’s too specific. They are showcasing the fashion, and want very little distraction. When you go to a larger store with a lot of vendors, it’s the way for the store to assert its own unique vision. It’s a way to say ‘we are different.’”

At Barneys, Hill was a contract muralist for 12 years. Among his most dramatic work there is the 10-foot-by- 45-foot mural at Barneys’ Madison Avenue flagship, in the back of the men’s department on the first floor. “It’s interesting because it has a lot of different materials — gravel, plaster, sand, cardboard, burlap,” Hill said. “It’s got a lot of texture.” Hill characterized it a “very industrial post-Cubist experiment” and said it works with the men’s wear. “It’s masculine and it looks timeless.”

Among his most memorable projects was the holiday “proverb” windows in 1996 at the Barneys store on 17th Street and Seventh Avenue, which closed when the Madison Avenue flagship opened. The windows took five months to create and had a crew of about a dozen people. The idea was to humorously illustrate proverbs, such as “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” For that one, Hill created a man with a horse’s head at a water bar at a spa with a towel wrapped around him, refusing to accept water from a woman in equestrian attire.

He’s done murals at all of Barneys’ stores, including those in Japan, and says he creates “site-specific murals.” At Barneys, he used a wide range of alternative materials, such as rope, gravel, sand, scraps of wood, glass tiles, fabric and furniture tacks, and he would apply the materials to fixtures such as jewelry and accessory casework for textural, bas relief effects.

“I am simply and purely reacting to the architecture the way I feel it’s right to react, to coinhabit the space,” Hill said. “It’s an interesting process for me, both challenging and rewarding.”

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