Visitors to the Phillips Collection, the exceptional modern art museum near Washington's Dupont Circle, may do a double-take when they stop to admire El Greco's "The Repentant St. Peter."
The bold painting of the apostle, made around 1600, is currently positioned between round archways. Behind them are two blowups of sections in the El Greco work — Peter's hands, a small detail from the corner of the original.
These works, large archival inkjet prints of digital photographs by Baltimore-based artist Bernhard Hildebrandt, are blurry, as if seen through the wrong side of thick glasses.
Several other pieces in the same vein fill the corridor beyond those arches, giving the viewer a strangely animated experience. In one rectangular work, the face of Peter that El Greco created is stretched out; the long fuzzy image makes it seem as if Peter were caught in the act of frantically running.
What El Greco captured was the saint, arms folded in prayer, eyes heavenward, atoning for having denied three times that he knew the just-arrested Jesus. It's a noble, richly expressive portrait of the future head of the Roman Catholic Church.
"I am not a Catholic, but I'm an observer," Hildebrandt said. "I can still relate to the emotions in the El Greco painting — Peter asking an existential question."
What the artist has seized and expanded upon is the tension in the El Greco work. That helps explain the title of the exhibit, "A Conjugation of Verb," which runs until Sept. 22 and was created expressly for the Phillips.
For Hildebrandt, the key factor comes from the lack of resolution in the original painting.
"Peter is in the process of repenting," the artist said. "He has not completed it."
Hildebrandt's work, then, provides a kind of improvisation on a theme of repenting. Deftly using photography, the artist seems to give El Greco's Peter continual movement, as if ever-trembling at his sin, constantly turning his head, tightening and retightening his hands.
There is a nearly seven-minute digital video in the exhibit that drives home this point. It is filled with same kind of blurred visions as in the still works, here subtly fading in and out to the sound of a low, rumbling soundtrack. The video, "The Repenting St. Peter," is housed in a darkened alcove, looking like a stained glass window in slow motion.
For all of the fuzziness of Hildebrandt, they have a way of bringing Peter's dilemma into greater focus. Just as this exhibit is likely to bring Hildebrandt greater attention.
Since 2007, he has been exploring the idea of combining the camera and baroque art. The El Greco project, the latest and boldest manifestation of that interest, contains hints of impressionism, expressionism and cubism, yet still feels connected to the 17th century.
"Marcel Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase' was an inspiration," Hildebrandt said. "I love Francis Bacon's distortions, too. And I've always been interested in photography, how the camera sees. Blurred imagery was a natural occurrence when photography evolved because exposure time took so long."
Although Hildebrandt, 54, who has a graduate degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, is a painter as well as a photographer, he did not consider doing painted responses to the El Greco work.
"I wasn't sure what painting would add to it that it doesn't already have," he said.
Originally from Massachusetts, Hildebrandt has made Baltimore home since 1999. About five years ago, he came to the attention of Vesela Sretenovic, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at the Phillips. She visited his Woodberry studio and liked what she saw.
Sretenovic invited Hildebrandt to participate in the "Intersections" project at the Phillips, which features artists from the region creating work related to art in the collection or the architecture of the museum itself.
"The ways Bernhard integrates photography and painting are interesting and beautiful," Sretenovic said. She added that the El Greco-based works surprised her with their "sense of monumentality — not only in scale, but also in overall experience."
Although in many ways a site-specific undertaking (Hildebrandt paid more than 30 visits to the museum over the past year getting inspiration for "A Conjugation of Verb"), the exhibit will not necessarily disappear after September.
"The project was conceived for the Phillips and as a direct response to El Greco's painting," Sretenovic said, "and also to the gallery configuration. That certainly does not mean it cannot stand alone. It is a powerful work in and of itself, yet it will resonate differently in a different setting."
Meanwhile, Hildebrandt's works can enjoy first-rate accommodations, just around the corner from Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," one of most popular items in the Phillips Collection.
Works by Van Gogh, Modigliani and Kandinsky are even closer. And a self-portrait of Cezanne seems to be looking directly at Hildebrandt's fascinating examinations of the repenting Peter.
"His brow raising, slightly," Hildebrandt said.
If you go
Bernhard Hildebrandt's "A Conjugation of Verb" runs through Sept. 22 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St., N.W. The artist will discuss the installation with curator Vesela Sretenovic at 3 p.m. Saturday. Call 202-387-2151 or go to phillipscollection.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun