Santa Fe (dot com)- Ester Barkai review

October 28, 2015
Stephen Hayes: Unpredictable Landscapes
October 28, 2015
Ester Barkai

“I could spend the rest of my life in copying a chair.”
—Alberto Giacometti

On opening night at David Richard Gallery a woman asked Artist Stephen Hayes how he knew when his paintings were finished. It is a seemingly simple question. But the practice of knowing when to recognize a finished artwork is a skill, as much as knowing how to use perspective is a skill. And though both are related to making art, you could say one is less scientific than the other. Perspective is based on convention and predictability. Knowing when to stop working on a painting is often unpredictable and different in each case. It is this unpredictability that makes working on art feel like a scavenger hunt, or an adventure. Though scavenger hunt is more accurate because the artist, like a hunter, either comes back empty handed or with plentiful bounty. It is this hunt, this process, which so many artists refer to and enjoy.

The modern artist Alberto Giacometti, probably best known for his gestural, elongated sculptures of the figure, was famously troubled by the question of finishing a work of art. Though he seemed to enjoy speaking of it—he often did so—he referred to it as “the terrible thing.” “That’s the terrible thing… the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.” Stephen Hayes tried to explain it to the woman with the terrible question (actually a good question about the terrible thing) while standing in front of his painting Enclave.

Enclave is a painting of a barn. The barn is red, the grass is green. The colors are conventional, in that they are connected to reality, inspired by the Pacific Northwest where the artist lives. But then Hayes did something unconventional, dragging the green grass down so it appears more like paint than nature. The effect leaves the viewer with a barn that seems to have been lifted off the earth. It and the green underneath it hover in the atmosphere somewhere between ground and sky. Enclave could stand for all of Hayes’s work currently on view at the David Richard Gallery, a series of landscapes that drift between representational styles. Some are closer to realism, to the ground, while others move away from reality toward abstraction.

Standing in front of this painting, the woman wanted to know: What’s the story behind the lines in Enclave? How did they get there? The artist told her. He used a straight edge to get the clean line where the barn meets the grass. Underneath the barn and grass are other lines. Those were the result of an unplanned event. They were not purposefully made, Hayes said, but when he saw them he decided to let them be—decided to stop.

That’s when the woman asked: How did he know? How did he know to let those lines be? How did he know when the artwork was done?

“It’s a process.”

We walked over to A Congregation, as I was now a part of their group. This painting only hints at a reference to a horizon line. It looks like it started as a depiction of a mountain but was later covered by gestural marks. The marks are light in values so it appears as if an atmosphere has come over the landscape. Hayes explained it was nothing so literal. He had painted a typical foreground meant to give the viewer an impression of depth. But it was predictable, he said. So he went over it with these marks, ridding the landscape of the expected perception of space and adding movement in a way that brought color to the surface. The finished landscape of A Congregation is the result of setting out to rid the painting of predictability.

Taking a break from writing this review one evening, I stepped outside and saw something red in the sky. Not a barn. It was a red moon covered in shadow with a highlight around one side. It was beautiful. Afterward, when I went inside and Googled, I found out that what I saw was a Super Moon Lunar Eclipse, also referred to as a Blood Moon. It is not expected to appear again for thirty years. How do we know? Because science predicts events, like, for example, lunar eclipses.

Art and science both describe nature. A good scientific model should be predictable. If it is unable to predict, it is not considered successful. In art, though, we talk about representational styles. Whether a style is more abstract or realistic relates to which type of reality an artist is interested in describing: reality seen, felt, imagined, or some other process we cannot yet explain. Artists like Stephen Hayes seek out the opposite of predictability. How does an artist know when a painting is successful? When it is finished? Alberto Giacometti might say, never! Asking Stephen Hayes, the answer seems to be, when it surprises him.

—Ester Barkai