Peter Freeman, Inc. May 17 – July 27, 2007
After an early career as a Pop artist, including a key role in the seminal Cage / Cunningham / Rauschenberg performances of the mid–60s, and a long hiatus from public artmaking in Brisbee, Arizona, Alex Hay has recently started painting again. Using a painstaking process involving stencils and spray paint—a hands-free technique that ultimately gives the works a more handmade feel than if the artist had simply used a brush—Hay paints magnified images of wooden surfaces, faithfully reproducing variations of grain, layers of paint, and effects of weathering on mid-sized canvases. His representations stop just short of trompe-l’oeil, but are sometimes, paradoxically, illegible as pictures. A few could pass as idiosyncratic, process-based abstractions (and one of them did, a few years ago, in The Painted World at P.S. 1). It’s pleasing to look closely and note the distance at which the stenciled representation of the wood grain, with its chunks of illusionistic enamel paint, dissolves into the actual weave of the canvas. The works are careful but not obsessive, technical but not fussy, and deadpan but not dead.
Compared to the trajectory of Peter Young, a fellow Brisbee-ian and near-contemporary of Hay whose work started out minimal and ended up unabashedly, mystically maximal, Hay has stayed true to a reductive approach. If anything, he’s reduced the terms of his art even more: the stark muteness of the recent works make Hay’s 1960s pictures of receipts, paper bags, and place settings seem conceptually overwrought in comparison. We’re hard pressed to find much fodder for the type of interpretation we usually bring to contemporary art; that is, we can’t read them very well. Hay has seemingly stripped his work of any symbolic significance in favor of a purely material and perceptual investigation. But predictably, things aren’t as simple as they look. Hay’s new paintings go over some familiar Pop Art territory—the mass-produced and the handmade, the commodity and the sign—but reorganize the field.
The difference between Hay’s paintings and orthodox Pop Art has to do with the subtle differences between a can of Campbell’s Soup and a piece of plywood. While both are commodities that can be visually identified in a painting, the two types of objects lead to works of art with very different scopes and intentions. Like two sheets of the same grade of plywood, the variation between one can of tomato soup and the next is negligible. For Warhol, depicting this or that can of Campbell’s Soup would have been beside the point; the object’s meaning in the artwork is derived from its position in a system of signs, and its accidental properties are important only insofar as they allow us to recognize the object as a sign.
But in Hay’s case, the accidental properties of the represented object are not only significant, but are in fact the only attributes of the object that differentiate one of his paintings from the next: whether or not a piece of plywood has been used or discarded for scrap, left raw or painted (which color, and how many times), protected or left out in the elements. The meaning of the painting is derived from the physical history of the object, the uses to which it has been put, and the artist’s attention to the traces of such use. And in some cases the history of the object encompasses so many alterations from its original state that we can’t tell if we’re looking at a mangled piece of plywood or a purely abstract painting: the object has been used—and observed—beyond all recognition. In his investigation of particularity, pursued past the point of legibility, Hay has opened an unlikely but potent area of visual thought.