Stephen Hayes: Peripheral Vision
BY TERRI M. HOPKINS
Curator Emerita, The Art Gym at Marylhurst University
In our society we distrust aesthetic experience—in particular the experience of beauty—and have come to associate it with the superficial and the vacuous. The paintings of Stephen Hayes remind us that in spite of contemporary skepticism, it is still possible to find beauty wedded to meaning. In Oregon, where Hayes has painted for the past fifteen years, it is not unusual to be blindsided repeatedly by the beauty of the natural world. The significance these experiences hold is tied in part to the knowledge that the mysterious still stubbornly resides in the familiar, is encountered when least expected, and disappears before it can be completely grasped.
Hayes has investigated the relationship between the experience of landscape and the creation of paintings for twenty years, continuously negotiating the territory between observation and invention. He is interested in the heightened awareness that comes through aesthetic experience and in the artifices we employ in seeking that experience in the world, or creating that experience through art.
This cultivation of an awareness of what is sometimes referred to as the fleeting world is something we associate most often with Asian painting and printmaking. In contemporary Western culture, continuous, if not relentless, change is expressed most frequently through film and video. Although Hayes has painted en plein air for years, his most recent paintings tap video as source material. They draw on our familiarity with the language of video, or more particularly of the video still, to convey the complexity of the contemporary relationship to landscape. In both the plein air work of the past and the current studio paintings, Hayes seeks to slow time down. The paintings stop time just long enough to record a single charged moment. To understand the path that led him to the current work, it is helpful to take a look back.
From Cyprus to Sauvie Island
Hayes began making landscape paintings while living in Cyprus from 1981 to 1984. There, the type of charged landscape he sought was a short walk from his door. When he moved to Oregon in 1985 he could still step outside to paint, but what he found were the narrow rainy streets of his northeast Portland neighborhood. He started driving west of the city to smaller rural communities such as Hillsboro, Banks and Helvetia, but he resented spending time driving that could have been spent painting. He decided to stay home. He painted his neighborhood street, the view out his kitchen window, and the confines of his small house-living room, sofa and chairs, a cup on the table, the stairs to the basement, the plumbing and the utility sink.
After painting everything that was close at hand, he finally conceded the need to look elsewhere and began driving once again to the outskirts of the city. This time Hayes found Sauvie Island. Just ten miles north of Portland, the island is a stretch of land that lies between and briefly delays the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The low, flat terrain is a mix of wetlands and cultivated fields separated one from the other by rows or groves of poplar, alder, oak and maple. Hayes has returned repeatedly to the island to paint. He has set up his easel in fields and stayed all day. Some of the paintings were done on the island; some were begun there and completed in the studio.
Landscape changes rapidly and continuously. The wind shifts. Clouds converge. The sun moves closer to the horizon. Color deepens and slowly drains from the sky. Few people, other than painters, bridge-tenders and fire lookouts experience landscape in this way, from a single vantage point for many hours at a time. Most of us get our experience of nature from a moving car. This modern experience of the landscape as witnessed from a fast-moving vehicle is a genre of experience that compounds landscape’s already elusive nature.
In 1997, in preparation for the paintings in his “Terra Incognita” exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, in Portland, Oregon, Hayes began to shoot slides out the window of his car, often not looking at what he was photographing. It was a way to see what is missed, what is on the periphery of our vision and our consciousness. The slides were an attempt to capture a landscape we are aware of without seeing, or know without looking. Back in the studio he experimented with holding two overlapping slides up to the light. These hand-held double exposures created composite landscapes that did not exist in nature but paralleled our cumulative knowledge of the land over time. These composite, or recombinant, images became the starting points for both the paintings and the monotypes in the Terra Incognita series.
Although many of Hayes’ paintings are triggered by rural landscapes located on the fringes of the metropolitan area, they are not about the disappearance- or threatened disappearance- of that landscape. Hayes explains that for him they are about the nature of immediate experience, of direct experience. They are in a way an attempt to “re-experience” an instant in time. In plein air painting, the artist goes out, stands still and observes. His eyes are directed ninety percent of the time at the trees, sky and fields around him and ten percent at the painting in front of him. The plein air paintings change in response to the changes in the landscape, but at some point each coalesces and is complete.
In preparation for most of the paintings created in 2000, Hayes continued gathering images from a moving car, but this time he shot video. The paintings underscore the transience of that experience. Many include roads, or began with the road as an integral part of the composition. Roads split the painting diagonally, seem to end suddenly, or act as counterpoints to trees in various configuration. We sense the changes in point of view that come as a car follows a turn in the road, or the shifts in color as a rain shower wets dead black asphalt, causing it to reflect the gray of the sky.
When Hayes records the landscape on video, then returns home to slow that video down frame by frame, and shoot stills with a Polaroid camera, it is a way to focus on one small frame or fragment. A level of control can be maintained in relationship to film that cannot be asserted over the live experience of nature in real time. Film may record the fleeting world, but, unlike its subject, it can be stopped, rewound and replayed. The studio paintings begin with the film still and evolve, not in response to a changing source- photos do not change- but in response to their own internal development and to the memory of the constant changes that take place on-site.
The color in these new works, like a number of earlier monotypes with landscape imagery, is heightened and artificial. The artifice is intentional. Responding to slides or film stills, the artist does not feel the need to adhere to a natural palette. In fact, Hayes plays with the color on the television screen before shooting the Polaroid stills. The viewer easily makes the connection to the acidic color of tweaked video or debased Polaroids, and that association reinforces the sense of the painting as an improvisation. It is an improvisation not just on an image from the world, but an improvisation on an image several times removed from that world.
Hayes’ paintings continue a tradition of seeking out and then responding to beauty in the natural world by creating a corresponding artwork. His is a heritage that includes both American nineteenth –century landscape painting and contemporary cinema. Hayes seeks to frame, not unspoiled or less spoiled rural places, but places where it is still likely to encounter a kind of beauty not frequently found on a city street. It is true that the rural landscapes on the fringes of our cities may eventually disappear completely, but it is also true that they change constantly and are continually disappearing and reappearing in new guises. Although the genre of landscape painting- and Hayes’ landscape paintings in particular- mine a familiar and traditional vein of art, these paintings challenge our security in what we know, trust or take for granted. As the landscape refuses to remain static, it defies simple codification.
Observation and Improvisation
The big studio paintings also draw on lessons learned in the course of working with monotypes over the past twelve years- lessons learned about invention and improvisation. Monotypes are made without much preplanning. Ink dries quickly and requires and encourages one to move rapidly and spontaneously. Instead of working from observation, in his monotypes Hayes draws on his knowledge of the human body and the way posture and gesture convey states of mind, and his knowledge of landscape and the way color, light and composition do the same. When working in monotype, he may start with a single color, put it on a printing plate, move it around, print it, add more pigment to the plate, print on top of the first print, and perhaps repeat this process up to a dozen times.
The large oil paintings are also about the changes that take place as the painting is made. Like the monotypes, the studio paintings rely predominantly on the artist’s accumulated knowledge of his subject. They are the product of improvisation on a photographic source, not observation of place. As I visited Hayes’ studio several times during a four month period in 2000, I saw the paintings change significantly. Roads were eliminated, trees relocated or subtracted, color profoundly altered.
The process of making and remaking the large studio paintings takes much longer than either the plein air paintings or the monotypes. First, they are made with oil paint, and oil dries slowly. The plein air paintings are also oil paintings, but they are small. Their size allows them to be completed more quickly and also allows the artist to react quickly to changes in the environment. With a single swipe of an eight-inch palette knife, for example, he can alter the entire painting. In the large paintings, change happens through repeated painting, scraping, sanding and repainting. The work goes on over a period of months, rather than days as in the plein air paintings, or hours in the case of the monotypes.
At the same time, the bones of many of the paintings remain unchanged. Some impetus that attracted the artist to the original place or the frame of film of that place, persists. In several works, a tree is silhouetted on the horizon, its barren branches set lightly against the sky, or its solid bulk dominating the middle of the canvas like a baritone at center stage. These back-lit forms remain unknown or dimly known. We are left in doubt as to the specifics of color or leaf; are left to infer type, much as we gather clues to the identity of a person from her posture or gait as she approaches at dusk.
There is some irony in the fact that something that originates in a split-second of film requires months to find in final form. However, much as film is a series of sequential frames, the big paintings are a series of sequential paintings. Each painted “frame” both alters and obliterates its predecessor. The other frames, each but a single moment in a visual narrative, have a private audience of one. At the conclusion of that narrative, the only painting left visible to the public is the last.
Hayes has not abandoned the type of observational painting that he pursued in his plein air work. He now applies that approach to his portraiture. In portrait painting, like plein air painting, most of the time spent looking is spent looking at the subject. Hayes’ work on a portrait often takes place over several sittings. He rarely works from photographs, because he believes that over the course of these long, slow and intimate sessions, the face a person might put on for a photograph cannot be sustained. Over time, it will be supplanted by an expression that more fully projects the individual. By painting and observing the subject for hours at a time, Hayes hopes to arrive at an image that more accurately portrays the individual.
Every painting is an artifice, whether the product of observation or invention. Natural history and biography are constructs, as are novels and short stories. Whether through fiction or nonfiction, human beings attempt to make sense of things. Stephen Hayes uses both approaches in his effort to articulate a beauty that reveals itself fleetingly and is seldom comprehensible.
These large studio paintings are oases in a world that is speeding by, a world more and more difficult to grasp. Thus the video- the artificial document of the artificial speed at which we encounter the world- is stopped, photographed, translated, enlarged, improvised. Hayes believes we live in a world in which we need such artifices- artifices of stories and dramas and operas and paintings-to be able to perceive and internalize beauty or love or sorrow. We always have. Perhaps, as life is lived at increasingly breakneck speed, we need these artifices that slow us down even more.
Terri M. Hopkins is the emeritus director and curator of The Art Gym at Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Oregon.