A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES HYDE, NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Tom Warren and Marc Hindley photographing the painting fix, photo: James Hyde
Having ignored previous installments in the endless effort by art reviewers to reinstate painting as the matrix in contemporary art, I feel at a loss regarding whether the much heralded"return of painting" constitutes the final part of a trilogy or, like Return of the Jedi, it is merely a false ending, some sort of market strategy. Writers from all sources applaud the new release. But in a curious way their excitement reveals more of a nostalgic reverie than the genesis of a genuine vital movement. I like to think that history moves forward, and if writers and critics need to foster a"movement" out of anything to cover up the dis-synchronicity of our times, that's pretty much their business.With these issues in mind, I went for a studio visit with James Hyde. His work always struck me as an open ended investigation on the nature of painting, a messy process alternately moving forward and backward, as well as high and low.
Sergio Bessa: The last time I was here you referred to your work as"heroic painting" and I was struck by it because I always thought of your work as a construction, more"constructivist."
James Hyde: That was kind of a joke! I've been working on a series of large works and"heroic" interests me because it's an embarrassing category these days. But there's something else. When you are in front of a Pollock or a Barnett Newman there's a very physical rush which happens. Sometimes in paintings this gets lost when things get overtheorized or developed an overly explicit content. There is a sensational awe in painting which perhaps we shouldn't lose so quickly.
SB When you say sensational you're referring to something the viewer projects on to the painting?
JH I'm using sensational doubly. I'm using it once in terms of"sensate," in terms of an most immediate perceptual experience, but I'm also using it in that way that a painting's visuality can be intensely dramatic.
SB There is a sense of architecture in your work. Your previous show had a strong bent towards furniture. Where does that come from?
JH I worked in construction for almost ten years. That gave me an intimate knowledge of architecture; its nuts and bolts. But there are a couple of parts to your question. One thing is the relationship of painting to architecture, and the other question is the relationship of architecture to this group of my works which are not paintings. These are useless useful objects; actual architectural objectsˇhandles, shelves, and a partition stall. But these works involved architecture the same way the paintings involve architecture. If you think about it the physical ground for painting is always architecture. A painting sits on a wall and is generally in an interior space. Paintings are a type of mental furniture that attaches to architecture.
SB That comes across very clearly in the fresco Styrofoam pieces. The thin layer of the surface and its chunky Styrofoam body remind one of a fragment of a wall.
JH Yeah, all paintings are sort of double walls.
SB Was there this furniture element in your work before, or was the"Handles" series something totally new for you?
JH One of the problems with abstract work is that it tends to be a totality. Abstraction has aspired to have no reference outside itself. When something is total there is nothing for the viewer to complete. I'm interested in a type of picture making which is based on illusionist space. It interests me the way people perform physically in front of a work of art. How they relate to it both physically and mentally. A handle forms a picture, a handle addresses someone who looks at it and describes a gestureˇa gesture in a different way than a De Kooning painting describes a gesture. But I'm interested in both types of gesture. You can see aspects of handle-esque picture-making in works I did before this group. The handles just develop it more explicitly.
SB Right. The way these works function entice the gesture from the viewer.
JH Yeah, what that does is that this work makes a performative place in front of the work.
SB It brings to mind the work of Franz West. Pieces that you can manipulate.
JH My works are not to be touched, however. Franz West always invites touching and brings the viewer publicly into the performance. I want to have that distance of not touching because I think it is more erotic.
SB You have a certain ease with painting that you never push into a style or a trademark.
JH I'm interested in an anonymous style. Our experience today is involved with so many styles simultaneously. There's not the idea that you're supposed to conform your life to one particular style that is superior or in which you would invest everything. I think art is communication with other people and communication with materials. I don't see it as something that is about making a big statement by constructing a style.
SB You use painting as a discourse or an anatomical device. It's pretty much about cutting and pasting, or opening and seeing how the whole thing operates. A piece like rant brings to mind the act of disembowlment, the painting unfolds physically.
JH That's what happens when you start to cut the big lump of painting up. You end up with different physical and ideological constructions. By literalizing these ideas and making them objects, new chains of association and metaphor are set into motion. We inherit painting as this big lump of tradition where its properties, ambitions, and habits are not questioned. There's a Byzantine show that just opened at the Met. It's interesting because these are paintings within our tradition but they are scarcely what we understand painting to be as it has been inherited today. They are different because they focus more on the panel. The panel creates meaning through presence rather than making meaning through description. The Byzantine icon's meanings reside in its immediate architecture. It interests me to take this inherited lump, cut it into different pieces and then develop these parts.
SB This sounds incredibly up-to-date. We can see the work of a whole generation being built around these issues.
JH I think the thing that all this group of artists including myself have in common is we are looking at abstraction not as an end-game, which is the traditional Modernist approach to painting. We are not working as if this was the last possibility for painting. There is an optimism in a way. I don't know if optimism is the word but it's the idea that painting has potential. Instead of trying to close the tradition, the tradition of painting is evoked, made a subject, a dramatis persona. People talk about the death of painting, I'll grant them it's either dead or dying. This is actually an optimistic thing because you don't quite know what it is. And having it sort of be in that ambiguous state is what's so potent about it. Painting goes on by eroticizing itself through thousands of"little deaths."
SB Let's talk more about this because there has been a lot of anxiety around the so called return of painting.
JH One thing that's so fun about living in New York is because New York is a painting town. I think there are few places in the world which like painting as much as New York does.
SB Why is that?
JH Maybe it is because, like New York, painting is both erotic and neurotic. Paintings make ideas sensual and visual. We like that.
SB Besides, most of the people who are doing"straight" painting now come through the way of installation art. So, painting is not innocent anymore, it's as if it took a walk on the wild side, and can't go back to what it was.
JH You were talking about the relationship between painting and architecture, but one of the things about painting is that it is a very effective piece of architecture, in and of itself. It can be used to house a lot of different ideas and a lot of different approaches while being spatially efficient. Another reason might be that in a culture which has virtually no state funding for the arts, as artists we all need to pay the rent, put food on the table. So painting is a tidy commodity which can be sold.
SB You think that's one reason for this trend toward painting?
JH Yeah, painting is not naive anymore and neither are we.
SB In this aspect I would say that your work is hard to sell. I don't see you going back to painting for that reason.
JH Because it's a tidy product? No, for me it's a love affair. But there's also a calisthenics which is why some kinds of my painting end up in compromising positions.
SB Using your image of a"lump." What part of the lump do you see your work dealing with now?
JH I have different pieces which deal with different parts of the lump and I work on those parts simultaneously. I have a tradition of fabric pieces which deal with the fabric support and also the image of the fold in painting. I have pieces which focus on the panel, like the fresco/Styrofoam pieces. I'm also doing some shaped panels which also make a subject of the panel. I have pieces in glass boxes which focus on the paint itself, its fluidity, its viscosity. And of course the transparency of glass. I can't imagine doing work which would deal with the lump as a totality. The lump of painting is just too big.
SB You work on all these different projects at different times and never close any of them? You just leave them open ended?
JH I like the idea of returning to an older type, and developing it in a new way. I don't work in a linear manner. I like to translate ideas from one type of work to another. There are pieces now in which I use tape as shape, but also as a stand in for gesture. They deal with notion of fold, like the fabric pieces, and perhaps they become more panel oriented like the fresco-Styrofoam's.
SB So they become hybrids?
JH Yeah, but in a weird way they are as much hybrids as different aspects of the cutting of the lump. Clumps of the lump. It's why my work doesn't have a particular style. I don't divide these things in order to define a style, I divide these things in order to submit myself to the logic of these material, psychological, or ideational aspects.
SB Do you have a structured method on how to go about on cutting this lump?
JH I don't. I really avoid doing that because to do that I would have to start constructing a particular model for making a painting, it would change the openness by which these things can be explored. I would be in a position of mastering some aspects, which doesn't interest me.
SB There is a sense of clash in your work, which for me is clear in the fresco-Styrofoam pieces; clash of material, styles, periods.
JH Painting has such a long complex history. Once you become aware of its history it becomes part of the language of artmaking. It's like an encyclopedia of different people's hopes, fears, and desires. And even though many other media have a more urgent contemporary impact, painting still has a special relationship with seeing, knowing, and believing. This is the territory that I work in. In order to articulate and dramatize these things I develop oppositions.
SB Well, this duality is very clear in your work, and I wonder whether it is something that you pursue?
JH In art making or in painting there is a different relationship to meaning than in language but with painting there's always the desire to have some relationship to meaning. Somehow in art works and painting it seems less interesting for these meanings to have explicit goals. I like artworks that set up differences and keep them continuous. Duality can produce an opening which can invite meaning. The thing is not to get caught by a duality but to use it to generate other dualities to make a dynamic of meanings.
SB What about the transformative element? I think the glass boxes, which have the evaporation and condensation process, are wonderful pieces. They have a little bit of science in them, like you have some sort of empirical system going on separated from nature, encased. And then there is the issue of transformation itself; the piece is always evolving from one state to another in a space of a day.
JH You know I talk a lot about painting and I guess you could say it's the subject of my work, but it's not what it's really about. I dislike art about art. If painting can't transform itself into being about experience it's really a sad thing. I like those evaporation-condensation panels because they literalize the idea that picture is a fluid transforming thing. But their physical wetness is so important. I also like that these works make one think about the process of evaporation and condensation and at the same time a rainy day.
SB Would you say that abstract painting is some sort of metaphor for transformation in your work?
JH Actually that's a real nice way to think about it.
New York, New York