Eighteen landscape paintings (all 2016) made up the exhibition Stephen Hayes called “In the Hour Before,” most depicting unremarkable terrain. Roseburg (10-1-15) resembles a Daubigny only just begun, with light camouflage colors—brown, tan, and Army green—limning a dull country expanse along a featureless road. In Tucson (1-8-11), several tall spindly palms line an empty street receding diagonally toward the horizon. An outsize stand of shrubbery in the foreground dissolves into a cluster of olive-green brushstrokes loosely applied, while, close by, a melting, indeterminate blue shape bleeds onto a sandy parkway. Squat, nondescript structures and a few more trees huddle at the edge of what might be a vacant parking lot; an anomalous blue-gray paint patch hovers over them, attached to no subject at all. A thinly brushed, earthy-pink sky rains down from above. Liquid and fragile, the scene almost evanesces into pure painterly effects.
Such deft blending of representation and sheer abstraction underpins Hayes’s eminence as a supreme kind of painters’ painter in the Pacific Northwest. In this exhibition, however, an unnerving disjunction arose that seemed uncharacteristic of his work: the serenity of the individual landscapes belied the traumatic theme of the series. In addition to Roseburg and Tucson, Hayes’s sites include Littleton, Newtown, Charleston, and Colorado Springs, while the dates memorialized in his subtitles conjure the headlines one would rather forget. In a gallery statement, Hayes explained that his pictures derive from Google Earth, which he employed to view locations of mass shootings, first those in Paris, where he had traveled shortly before the terrorist attacks last November, and then those in Jerusalem and town by tragic town in the United States. If the project became for the artist a means of honoring victims and bereaved survivors, the series confronted viewers with the brutal fact of violence fatally erupting in the midst of ordinary daily life.
As paintings, Hayes’s works are unsensational, and also beautiful in their execution; as memento mori they are effective and deeply disturbing. They at once deliver and perversely disrupt aesthetic pleasure, as when, relishing milky-white scumbling amid the blue ether in a hazy suburban scene, I was jolted out of my absorption by a glance at the wall label: San Bernardino. Similar experiences must have vexed viewers who, on the night of the exhibition’s opening, debated the appropriateness of Hayes’s apparently provocative move. Some complained of too many pictures, an objection that seemed directed at curatorial judgment but was likely a displaced response to the bewildering surfeit of murderous events recently in the news. We still sometimes cling to the fantasy of art as an autonomous realm where only detachment and delectation reign. Insistence on that consoling fantasy grows ever stronger in the face of such random, irrational destruction as that which Hayes seeks to undo by turning back the clock to a moment of normalcy “in the hour before.”