INTERVIEW: Harrison Haynes

Untitled (Drum Rug), 2010, archival pigment print, 62 x 39 inches, installation view

 

Harrison Haynes is a North Carolina-based visual artist, drummer for Les Savy Fav, and contributor to zing #19.  Raised in the rural outskirts of North Carolina Piedmont, he grew up among “DIY redneck-hippies: welders and carpenters that listened to ZZ Top and burned big vanilla scented candles in their outhouses” who “hosted demolition derbies, volleyball parties, big oyster roasts every fall, and homemade fireworks displays on the Fourth of July.”  After spending time in Providence and New York, Haynes returned to North Carolina and cofounded with his wife, Chloe Seymore, the now-closed Branch Gallery in Durham, NC.  He is currently enrolled in the Bard College MFA program.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

 

My entry point for your work is your watercolor series in zingmagazine #19.  These have a very homey, Southern feel.  Vignettes of Southern life – trucks, woods, beards, wood paneling.  I really enjoyed the TV piece – it creates that quintessential TV light in a memory of warm brown furniture.  Where are these scenes from?

The watercolors are based on my own snapshots. Mostly pictures I took up until about high school. I started using a camera at an early age, like 5 or 6. My dad gave me one of those 110mm little black rectangles. Later he gave me an SX-70 Polaroid Land Camera. It was primarily a social activity for me. I documented the schoolyard, trips I went on and had friends pose. I enjoyed the social aspect of taking pictures. The product, the prints and the sharing or subsequent display of those images, was secondary or even non-existent for me until much later. I wasn't sure what to do with all the shiny pieces of paper once they got picked up from the pharmacy*. (*Isn't the drug-store/amateur photography connection a funny anachronism?) While I was always interested in art, I never identified as a Photographer. I carried the photos around in cardboard boxes and looked at them from time to time. Later on in art school I studied painting. It never occurred to me to use the pictures as subject matter. I drew some imaginary line between the kind of photos I had been taking and what I regarded as 'Art'. But I still had the boxes sitting around and continued to take pictures in the same way, now with a point and shoot 35mm. After finishing at RISD I was living back in North Carolina. I was sharing a house with my best friend since childhood, living next to the exact expanse of woods that we used to run around in as kids. He was working at the Center for Documentary Studies/Doubletake Magazine. Through him and the resource of the CDS, I got exposed to a whole new set of artists, people that hadn't been on my radar at RISD; photographers like William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Mitch Epstein, Thomas Roma and William Christenberry. Naturally, I started to reassess the snapshot, the everyday, banality and the validity of those notions in art, the role they played in my own artistic sensibility. At the time I was working for a married couple that were comic book artists. They had hired me as an assistant colorist. Their process back then (another anachronism) was to fill-in xeroxed copies of the inked pages using watercolor. Then a digital colorist would translate those mockups for print. I had to adapt to a very utilitarian technique with the watercolor and in that way I became quite good at it. I discovered the more nuanced procedures through mistakes. The subtlety that's achievable with watercolor lends itself nicely to transitions of light and shadow, gradual chromatic shifts, a certain evenness of surface. Those were the characteristics that lead me to view it as an appropriate medium for translating the snapshots. There was also a connection in the substrate: paper to paper. The thing started as pretty simple way to carry the photographic images into another state, to see what they meant, to me, to others, having gone through that shift. I selected a dozen or so photos based on impulses not quite articulated at the time. In retrospect I think I gravitated toward pictures that had a certain openness where familiarity could be a point of departure into something more ambiguous. In executing the watercolors I set out to reproduce the images to the best of my ability. But there's a push and pull between reproduction and materiality, the border between photo-realism and more direct applications. Like that blob of moisture on the edge of TV screen in the piece you referenced above. I might have said, 'Ah Fuck!' when my overloaded brush hit the paper there. But that blur contributes to autonomy in the piece. The Southernness wasn't really something that I considered until I had moved to NYC. I realized that I was making something about where I was from, about North Carolina, about the post-hippie scene I had grown up in there. Perhaps the 500 miles allowed a productive kind of cerebral distance. I started thinking about my childhood and the kind of places and people I was around and again I was struck by this idea that there was a good amount of compelling subject matter sitting right under my nose. I wrote a short blurb for the bio section of that zingmagazine which indicates some of those ideas.

 

Lately it seems like you’re focusing more on collage and photography.  In the Disruptive Patterns series you retain some of the Southern subject matter mentioned above, but frame them as clusters of photographed objects or in uncanny, borderline surrealistic, juxtaposition.  Was there a point of transition from painting to this type of work, or have you always worked in multiple mediums?

The transition was the impulse to deal with those same photographs head-on. I had been skirting around the actual photos, working FROM them in a variety of ways. It felt like it was time to physically address them. The first time I cut into one of the prints there was a great relinquishment of preciousness. I just started hacking them all up with scissors, hundreds of photos, culling individual objects and areas from within each photo for later use. I made big piles of the bits and then sorted them according to size, theme, color, light source, etc. I have permanent callouses on my knuckles from all the scissor-use. It wasn't an abandonment of painting, but it was the beginning of an acknowledgment that I can work in multiple mediums at the same time. I think this move also paralleled an impulse to eschew overtly personal subject matter, to move towards a more open or fragmented narrative. Also at this time, I started more actively engaging in photography as a tool for the gleaning of images that would later appear in the collages. I'm also a drummer in a band that travels a lot. For about 5 years I took a Canon Demi 35mm half-frame camera with me on countless tours and shot landscapes, found objects, highways, people, cars, incidental things, peripheral things. I so wasn't interested in documenting the rock 'n roll part of it.

 

In other series, you introduce more layers, complicating the idea of photography and collage further.  One of my favorites is Featuring, where you create these text-based, geometric objects using a section of printed material and a mirrored corner, forming 3D situations from 2D objects.  Where did the idea for this series come from?

In 2009 I was accepted into the Bard College MFA program and I set out to tackle photography more deliberately. Featuring is a series I did in between my first and second year at Bard (I'll finish up at Bard next summer, 2012). They're at the intersection of a few things going on in my head at the time. I was thinking about collage, but looking for ways to execute it sculpturally, or as a still life, and then to make a photograph of that so that the photo would be the final work. I saw the Czech Photographic Avant-Garde exhibition at the Phillips Collection in DC that year and it really floored me. I got excited by the idea that a photo could be a document of another work, even something ephemeral, so that the photo becomes the thing, becomes autonomous. I'm getting another dose of this notion today (almost 80 years after the fact. Ha!) reading Walter Benjamin's 'Little History of Photography'. He's describing the academy's initial reluctance to accept photography as art at the exact same time that photography was beginning to supplant art-viewership through the universal acceptance of graphic reproduction: art-as-photography vs. photography-as-art. Anyway, at the time of this work, I was looking at a lot of records, LPs. Along with 6 other artists, I had been asked to curate a crate of 20 albums for the exhibition, 'The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl'. I was digging through my own collection and spending lots of time online looking for specific albums whose cover art used mirror images, refraction or reflections. I had also used mirrors as still-life elements in an earlier series of photographs. The source material here are those little promotional emblems you'd see on album covers in the 60's and 70's indicating the hit songs included on that LP or some other message of advertisement. I photographed them and then manipulated the images by placing those photos at the intersection of two mirrors creating a cyclical pattern.

 

In your series Practice Space, you’re incorporating another major part of your creative output - music and its ephemera.  Prints of these ephemera – rugs, cymbals, foam - are remade as trompe-l’oeil objects. This exposes a sculptural side of photography – prints acting as an installation of relics.  Can you explain how you arrived here?

Practice Space deals with the objects that are found in a band's rehearsal space. I started delving into the arbitrarily rigid dichotomy between music and art in my life, how divergently I regarded the two practices despite their obvious overlap and mutual influence. I had been in bands as long as I had been making visual art but I wore the hats separately, and seldom identified with one pursuit while in the midst of another. At Bard I was immersed in an interdisciplinary environment and so I began to think about ways to remove the divide. The cymbal occurred to me as an object that I had a very functional but in-depth relationship with. Taking a picture of it and then cutting it out removed it from its everyday context and I suddenly saw it in a very formal way and that was really exciting. Other objects followed: the rug that lies under the drum set, the convoluted foam that gets stapled to the wall to deaden sound. There's an additional play with materiality and even sculpture in the cockeyed analog between the new cut out photo and its parent. The new 'rug', a 40" x 50" archival inkjet print, flopped around just as unwieldily as an actual carpet. For a long while, without a good place to store it, it was slumped over a chair in my studio and was regarded by visitors as an actual rug pending further scrutiny. Tromp-l'oeil was not my first intention although it was an inarguable result. I was more interested in an object that passed through many states of being and had returned as a cockeyed version of itself.

 

You are in an upcoming exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts called Here based on the role of “place” in art that contests the idea of regionalism. What will you be showing? And in a broader sense, how does North Carolina influence your work? 

For the PAFA show I'll be focusing on a performance work called LRLL RLRR that I started doing in 2008 in which another drummer and I play the same drum beat in unison for 74 minutes. I'm also producing a two-channel video based on the performance which will exhibited for the first time. The performance grew out of the same impulse that lead to Practice Space, drawing on my experience as a musician as subject matter for visual art. But here it's more direct. Each time I've staged the piece it's in cooperation with another drummer, someone from whichever city we're in. So for the PAFA show my collaborator will be a Philadelphian. The collaborative aspect is indicative of the communities that I've come to be a part of through touring. During the mid 1980's, when I was first discovering underground music culture, regionalism was intrinsic. Every city had a scene and group of bands that sprung out of that. On show flyers, each band's name was followed by a parenthetical indication of where they were from. Certain areas had certain sounds, aesthetics. By the time I was playing in a band and touring nationally, regionalism and categorization had begun to dissipate. Bands were bound less by aural similarity and more by an overall DIY methodology. Now of course it's all upside-down.

 

What are you working on now? Anything to look forward to?

Right now I am really focusing on expanding the LRLL RLRR project for the PAFA show. I shot the video footage last week and now will begin the editing process. It's a new medium for me. The considerations and procedures are related to photography but the chronology of the process is so different. I'm used to photographing inanimate objects and this was dealing with moving, human subjects, so there were all sorts of new imperatives. Time becomes crucial since you can't expect people to sit in under the lights forever and ever. Plus I was dealing with sound recording, mic placement, etc. It's all very energizing, actually.

Also, as an object accompaniment to the video, and to future performances of LRLL RLRR, I'm publishing the musical score: over 2000 measures of the same drum beat written out as notation along with a mirrored accompaniment to indicate the two drum sets. It's a ridiculous kind of 'drawing' of the performance that people can take home with them.

Something to look forward to is this: my band, Les Savy Fav, along with the bands Battles and Caribou, are curating an entire weekend of programming at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the UK in December. Each Band gets a full day/night to stock with music, DJs, films, whatever. It's a pretty huge honor, to the point where we've sort of done like a Dungeons & Dragons-type fantasy game about in the past. But the selection process ended up being a lot harder than we thought. Not everyone we wanted was available, or alive. And we had some unexpected obstructions of consensus (turns out not all of us were into getting Kris Kross back together). One thing we were pretty quick to agree on was a desire to get Archers of Loaf to play. They had started playing shows again recently and so it ended up being possible. I've been delving back into all their LPs lately and I'm still entranced by their singular mannerism: odd chords, odd structures, odd lyrics that somehow coalesce to form rock music that is often very relatable. I saw them play last week here in NC and they were harnessing the same unselfconscious, ecstatic energy that the songs were first born out of. And they played the most obscure songs with as much fervor as the sing-alongs. Although with the show taking place in the bull's eye of their first wave, every song was a sing-along, a somewhat distracting thing if you happened to be standing next to someone with a loud, bad singing voice.

Anyway, here's the link that tells about ATP: http://www.atpfestival.com/events/nightmare2011/lineup.php

Other than that the future is revolving, counterclockwise, hurricane-like, around my last year at Bard MFA, next summer. I'll be concentrating on my thesis, the actual work and the written part, over the next 9 months. LRLL RLRR along with other work happening now, and some nascent ideas, will funnel into the project, probably get puréed a few times, then congealed, sliced and served up. I have a show at UNC-Greensboro in January where I'll be able to look at how some of these things can relate in one space.