Hugh Hayden: Border States
On ViewLisson Gallery
September 15 – October 27
New York, NY
Hugh Hayden’s Border States brings America’s domestic architecture to life in a series of seven painstakingly carved and pointedly macabre wooden sculptures. Prosaic objects—a front door, three iterations of a picket fence, a kitchen table, a stroller, and a crib—are transformed into wily subjects. The sculptures, which are made from trees harvested by the Texas-born artist along the border between his home state and Mexico, beg for both reflection on, and revision of, the latent narratives that rest within the familiar, quotidian forms. These synecdoches for a vision of the American dream are reframed and mutated into thorny renditions, menacing barriers.
One can surmise that The Jones Part 3 (2018), a wall-mounted segment of a picket fence sprouting phallic protrusions, is titled at least partially in reference to the quintessentially American idiom “Keeping up with the Joneses.” The saying, which has roots dating back to a popular comic strip that originated in 1913, hits upon the deep-seated cultural tendency to compare oneself perpetually to those around you, particularly in relation to socio-economic status and the accumulation of material goods. To a comedic yet poignant effect, the phalluses (flaccid, erect, and everywhere in between) appear as though they are in competition, clamoring.
Hayden riffs on variations of these protrusions, which lend the work its anthropomorphic quality, as the personalities of the objects expand beyond their forms. Just as in The Wizard of Oz’s forest of fighting trees or a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale, some sculptures feel as though they might just reach out and snatch you. There is an overarching sense of danger. (At the show’s crowded opening, an incidental layer of irony was added by a suited guard who stood before one of the picket fences, appearing as though he was policing the barrier. In reality, he was there to prevent preoccupied onlookers from being pierced by an especially sharp outgrowth.)
The works also play upon and obscure the chasm between mass production and artisanal craft. America (2018) presents a table surrounded by four chairs, which Hayden modeled after his own childhood kitchen table. This symbol of household discourse and model of family values remains functional yet treacherous as large thorn-like formations cover the wood’s wavy surface. In contrast to the menacing nature of the sculptures is the attraction that lies in the craft of these objects, the ogle-worthy, carved detail.
Cable News (2018), a built-to-scale representation of the stereotypical suburban front door, sits mounted on the wall at the gallery’s entrance. While America brings bespoke furniture to mind, Cable News’s form plays on a Home Depot aesthetic. Still, the surface reveals the artist’s hand as the extensions again jut out from the undulating cedar plane. The door’s function as a threshold is revoked. There is no knob, and where the panes would normally support glass windows are tinted mirrors that reiterate the boundary. This sculpture contains the only overtly readymade elements in the show: the mirror and a brassy mail slot, which pop from the untreated wood. Fasteners, and presumably some glue, are the only other materials in the show that are not natural, crafted, or sourced by Hayden. The gallery smells of freshly cut wood, and the surfaces, which are left without paint or lacquer, lend a sense that the natural forms underwent an autopoiesis, a self-creation of sorts.
These sculptures, which tap into the subconscious and reveal the ids of everyday objects, make the mind run into nightmarish corners. Perhaps most culpable would be Oreo (2018), a child’s crib made from Texas ebony, which sits on its own in a back room. The Robert Gober-esque architectural structure is lined with thousands of thorns (think vagina dentata) that resolve in sharp white tips. Oreo lends itself to a more overt commentary on race, assimilation, and admission—lines which are deftly threaded throughout the show.
Border States brings Robert Frost’s classic parable-like poem Mending Wall (1914) to mind. In the poem, the speaker and his neighbor meet one day each spring to walk the length of the wall that divides their properties and fill any breaches along the way: “And on a day we meet to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again. / We keep the wall between us as we go.” The speaker reflects on this ritual and eventually questions its purpose. “My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” But the neighbor replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Why do good fences make good neighbors? The speaker wants to know. The neighbor only repeats himself. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Hayden’s sculptures beg the question in reply: what more is a fence or a wall than a physical manifestation of fear?