At The Horizon – Bruce Guenther (Catalog Essay)

At the Horizon


Stephen Hayes has chosen to paint in an era dominated intellectually by conceptual art and physically by the computer and digital photography. To set one’s course as a painter today is to struggle against both the weight of the painting tradition and the prevailing notion that oil painting is irrelevant to the avant garde. Further complicating Hayes’s trajectory as an artist is his choice of the debased trope of landscape as his primary subject. He succeeds because he has invigorated this traditional form with an unexpected, fresh infusion of photography and mechanical means to critically reshape the painting process.


It is important to recognize that landscape as a traditional subject of painting has lost all meaning in our age. Where Romanticism in the first half of the nineteenth century saw divine sublimity in views of nature, the twenty-first century finds empty cliché. With the abandonment of symbolic meaning, first by the French Impressionists and then by the American Abstract Expressionists, landscape painting would become a vehicle for formal innovation—a representational strategy and an idea, not a specific geography. In the 1970s and 1980s, post-minimalism and the conceptual redefinition of the art object meant that painting and landscape as a genre were relegated to the sidelines, having no use in avant garde production. Where landscape once revealed the omnipresence of God in the grandeur of eternal nature, or later documented a moment and place through an atheistic naturalism inspired by Darwin, it has now evolved into a formal device devoid of meaning, save for the individual viewer’s personal interpretation.


Since his arrival in Portland in 1985, Hayes’s practice as an artist has moved fluidly between abstraction and representation, painting and printmaking. With his shift in the last decade from the memory of Corot to the inspiration of Richter, Hayes has vigorously evolved his practice away from direct observation en plein air to the active invention of fictive landscapes through the mediating screens of technology. This began with a 2001 cross-country car trip, when Hayes made a videotape of the passing scenery from the window of his speeding vehicle. When he returned to the studio, he played back the video on an old television set and captured freeze-frame single images using Polaroid film. The landscape images from the video, blurred by movement, unpredictable light, and grainy resolution, were then further altered by the re-photographing of the images. The resulting highly mediated photographs—with their indistinct details, strangely systems-distorted colorations, and indeterminate spaces—became the basis for a series of landscape paintings that Hayes would realize in oil paint. Though this process of radically narrowing the field of vision, from the initial act of fixing an image to the transfer to Polaroid to the creation of a hand-painted work on canvas, Hayes produced an exciting new paradigm for his work. Photography became his tool of choice to isolate a view or landscape structure for semiotic interrogation in his unpopulated paintings. It is in the camera’s inherently objective vision that Hayes establishes a threshold of factual truth to create fictional imagery, mixing the optical and physical realities of the landscape before him.


The surprise and satisfaction of Hayes’s work in the last ten years have resulted in large part from his use of photography to generate the work without leaving obvious evidence of this origin. He uses found and created photographs to provide and record landscape views with the fleeting effects of light, elusive perspectives, and spontaneous juxtapositions that are the accidental gifts of photography. Hayes has clearly come to use the camera like a sketchpad to collect data, remember the incidental, and test pictorial structures leading up to the actual painting. His application of digital techniques to otherwise banal photographs enables him to select, isolate, rescale, and distort the image in fresh ways in advance of the actual painting.


Hayes is a master of technique, and his use of planned and accidental effects in his paintings contributes to their effectiveness in reinventing the genre. Like his hero, Gerhard Richter, who in 1990 declared that “I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned,” Hayes deploys a wide variety of painting techniques to corrupt his own process. Working on canvas stretched over Baltic fir plywood, Hayes loosely transfers a photographic image that has been gridded to the canvas ground with a hot color like orange or red diluted oil paint, intending that some part of the vivid underpainting will be left exposed in the finished work. Color in his work is convincingly close to reality, but it is a reality of shifting light in a daring chromatic range that flashes acidic and sweet, then sharp and muted. In a dance between arbitrary mark and spontaneous incident, the canvas develops a life unto itself as the artist conflates natural and pictorial space and gives equal footing to the unplanned and the controlled. Using printmaking techniques and tools from his monoprint work, Hayes will sometimes lift a thick passage of paint on a large brayer and reposition it or double it on the canvas. The cardboard squeegees he uses to drag paint onto or across the surface often become infected with previous layers of color, further enriching the surface. As a pictorial strategy, Hayes deliberately sets up situations to disrupt and complicate the painting in order to avoid a predetermined and predictable image. The works become sensate, sensual in their thick and thin paint surfaces, vibrant in the palette’s chromatic range. Mediated by photography and digitalization, the ubiquitous ciphers for landscape—ground, tree, horizon, sky—become ambiguous, subjective, and somehow emotionally amplified by the artist’s freewheeling translation from mechanical image to the tangible pigment.


It takes only a moment to see a Stephen Hayes painting. Understanding its suggestive abstraction, however, is a slow, complex process that rewards thoughtful looking and sustained effort to decipher the pictorial structure. To the extent that we still need beauty today, the luminous paintings of Stephen Hayes provide a vibrant, engaging place at the horizon of perception to experience beauty in emotionally colored canvases of body-felt light and darker blackness.

Bruce Guenther – Robert and Mercedes Eicholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art-Emeritus

Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon