A conversation with painter Stephen Hayes

Since 2015, Stephen Hayes has painted the mundane sites of horrific tragedies

Tad Savinar, writing in the catalog for Stephen Hayes’s 2013 retrospective at the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College, said, “I believe good artists are good scientists, constantly searching and testing in order to refine and express their pursuits.” Over the past three decades Hayes has moved his painting from a controlled, uniform touch to wildly brushed, smudged, scraped and daubed compositions as free as improvisational jazz. His recent work focuses on seemingly mundane scenes, but locations of horrific tragedy.

A new group of Stephen Hayes paintings is at Elizabeth Leach Gallery from October 5-28.

So how long have you been a painter?

That’s kind of a trick question. It’s interesting you ask that question because I’m currently writing a fellowship proposal, and in there I wrote that when I graduated from grad school and went off on my journey to make work, I was not a painter, so I recognize that I was wasn’t a painter coming out of school.

What did you think you were?

Somebody who got his MFA. I focused on drawing primarily. I did painting, but then I spent a couple years in Cyprus trudging the hills and painting en plein air. I learned a lot about what it was to make a painting. I traversed a whole bunch of sort of hackneyed ground, but also discovered what the material was, how much I felt connected to it, how much I didn’t know about it. That was 1980 to ’84. I was not really thinking of myself as a painter, but I was trying to learn something about painting.

So you didn’t think you’re becoming a painter while you were going through an MFA program.

Not at all. And that other loaded word of being an “artist.” It wasn’t until the last 10 to 15 years that I’ve had any ease with using that term—describing myself being an “artist.” It’s easier to describe myself as being a “painter” than being an artist because a “painter” felt like something physical that I was getting to, something I was connecting to. Being an artist has always felt like something much less understandable and a little bit mystical—a bit like I’m not the one that gets to say that. That has to be said about the work that I make.

Jasper Johns said something to the effect that the difference between “going to be an artist” and “being an artist” is a state of mind.

I can live with that.

Do you feel like there’s a point where you decided you were a painter?

Definitely it wasn’t an “aha” moment or anything like that for me, but I know that calling myself a painter happened first before calling myself an artist because it felt like much more achievable. I could say, “I’m figuring out moving this material around, what happens when I do this, what my response is, what my feeling is about the material, and how it assists me in working with imagery, or working with expression, or the more esoteric things.” When I think of myself as a painter I can think about all the things that I know how to do, like mix this with that to get this, predict the results of this medium in this temperature on this kind of day.

Stephen Hayes, “Ferguson, MO 8-9-14,” 2017 oil/canvas 30”x 30”

You know your instrument and you can play it.

I know the instrument and I can play it, so I feel like that’s the painter part of me—a little bit craftsman. The artist part is a whole different story. That’s knowing the space between the notes.

Paint itself has become very important in your paintings.

One of the things that I want my students to come away with is that they are painting even if they’re making images or pictures. So one of the first exercises I have them do is go to a real painting, see things in the flesh, and describe exactly what they see. If they start off with “there’s a guy on a horse,” then I know they’re in the realm totally of imagery. And then if they, on their own, get to that other place—“the paint’s really juicy and thick in parts and in other parts it’s really thin and the other parts are shiny or glossy or dull,” or “it’s a really big thing, it’s bigger than me”— any time they made a note of that, to me, that’s like “yes, OK.” Otherwise I have to do that work with them, teach them how to look at the painting.

I suppose there are people who listen to music because they like the words in the song and other people are listening to the music as well.

Absolutely.

When did you decide that you wanted to study art?

I was in college. I went to the University of Wisconsin for my bachelors degree. I went to study geology, but I left behind a high school girlfriend who went off to the Rhode Island School of Design, and I figured I’d better take some art classes if I was going to have anything to talk to her about as we got into our old age with all our kids around. And at the end of my freshman year I decided to switch over to art because I found out I just love it. That relationship, as most high school romances do, didn’t have legs, but in spite of the fact that I got Cs in basic drawing, I connected with that.

Looking back at the teachers you had, were there particular important teachers?

Absolutely, yeah, there were some great teachers. Probably the most significant for me was a guy named Richard Long. I just found out recently that he passed away last year. He wasn’t a painter. Drawing was his thing. The thing that I got from Richard more than anything was—it’s a little bit Johnsian, let’s go back to Jasper—the “take an object, do a thing to it, do another thing to it,” kind of approach. He taught me that process and the ability to look at the things after you’ve done that, at each stage, and name what you see, name what’s there and then what else might I do.

So it was an attitude about how to proceed in making the work, not a particular technical thing or aspiration to what kind of artist you might be. Something seemingly simple.

But absolutely critical to the ability to move forward. If you have no ability to challenge your thinking or to find context for what it is you’re doing, you’re going to run out fast.

Stephen Hayes, “Self Portrait”, 2002

Robert Ryman said that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure. Does that ring true to you?

For my own work I’d have to go sideways a little bit on that. I always insist on coming away with something better. I have really broad definition of what a beauty can be. There’s not a lot of limitations to it, so it can be a can of artist’s merde [Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961].

The can may be beautiful. I’m not sure about the contents.

The concept there, the notion of it, can be quite beautiful—on a different level than, say, a Titian Slaying of Marsyas.

So there could be something that’s visually beautiful, and something where the idea is beautiful.

I’m fascinated by the work of Sol LeWitt and his work looks nothing like mine—and I have no intention of making works that look anything like his. But I’m always aware in his work that he’s following some sense of logic to an unknown end. It’s pleasurable. It makes me laugh, even though it’s very dry in a way, makes me smile. I find it really beautiful. And in a weird way, the paintings that I make contain that quality, too. I didn’t expect this. I’m not controlling everything so much that I can predict the outcome, and that’s what I want.

Early on, maybe when you hadn’t yet become a painter, was there a particular kind of painting that you aspired to?

Authentic is what I really aspired to, of the moment for me. It’s personal. Aspired to work that speaks, that has some kind of voice, that feels necessary. I don’t sign many things. I don’t feel that I need to because when I look at the work I recognize them instantly—even if I don’t remember making it—that’s mine, that’s my hand.

There seems to have be a time when the paint itself becomes more loosely attached to the image, brushstrokes almost for their own sake, but I always feel that they help to define space in some way. Do you have a thought about how that occurred? Or just one day decided to throw in this brushstroke?

There’s a little bit of that. There’s a resistance to finesse. I struggle to hold my hand back sometimes. I’ve certainly killed a lot of paintings by overworking them.

It’s part of the game.

Part of the game is to do that and learn from that…It becomes clear that once you’ve begun it’s no longer you making it, it’s the two of you working together—the painter and the painting are working together. It sounds really weird when you talk about it like that, but it becomes really evident, at least in my case. I’m not in total control of this thing becoming. I’m a facilitator.

If I think back to the earliest works of yours that I saw, which must’ve been from the ‘80s, landscape paintings, there was a certain kind of consistency in paint application. Now there’s a smudge here, a smoosh there, a drip. There must’ve been an attitude about consistency early on, but at some point you must have decided that what’s important is something else.

I think early on the drawings that I made when I was in grad school were very controlled, realistic portrait drawings, life-size figures, heads. When you look at the drawings you can see all the hashmarks and scratchings and you could see the making, but you quickly went to seeing the image and that was pretty impressive to me then, but it is less interesting to me now.

Satisfaction in accomplishing a task.

So, painting in the beginning, even though I was switching materials and subject matter and approach, because a lot of those paintings I was making were plein air paintings, actually made outside, I was trying to control a little bit. I think that look is a result of seeking control, manipulating the thing to an intended end. At this point the intended end is pretty open. It’s much more divergent than convergent in my approach to painting. I might have an idea of the subject matter and the image that I’m kind of focusing my attention on, but what the making is going to be—I learn it along the way. It’s using brushes, using scrapers, using rollers, using rags, and all that stuff, all a result of all the years I spent making something.

Do you visit the Portland Art Museum often? What works do you make sure to see?

I’m a member and I go two or three times a year. There’s always a few paintings that I insist on seeing. There’s a Pissarro painting of the house with the red roof —it’s one of my favorites and it hasn’t died for me. There’s an Albert Pinkham Ryder painting. I saw it last week. There’s a painting of an aqueduct—I don’t know who the painter is. Really phenomenal. The mood just kills me. There’s a Kuniyoshi portrait that I insist on seeing every time I’m there. There’s not a lot of seminal pieces that draw me in, that I always go to see. There’s a Fairfield Porter painting, too. Pissarro is the one for me, though—if I was going to steal a painting out of the museum.

Do you still do portraits?

I do. In fact I have a commission that I haven’t started yet. I’m going to get started on it this week. I don’t do them in the same way that I did, just out of interest. Now I do them when it’s time to do a portrait for somebody, or if I got a commission and those commissions are generally from people I know.

Talk about the difference between between doing a portrait and doing these other paintings. With the portrait there’s probably a feeling that you should have some kind of likeness.

There is from the people who are being painted, definitely. I guess the biggest difference to me is not in how they’re made—they’re made in the same way. But there is always that there is that kind of restriction to bring it back to that image, that you say, “that’s the person.” The people who are being painted, of course, feel that, but I really feel that as well. I want that. I want that person to show up. But I want that painting also to be a killer object. I want you to look at it as a painting every bit as much as I want you to look at it as a picture of that person.

The same way we look at Rembrandt.

The whole reason that I started painting portraits in the first place was a single painting in the National Gallery of London by Anthony van Dyck, a portrait of a guy named Cornelis van der Geest. When I spent nine months in London in 1995, I spent, I don’t know, a hundred hours just trying to figure out that painting. I wasn’t making work then. I didn’t have a studio or anything. I did drawings. I just tried to fathom “how is this painting made?”— so magic you know—and it was easy to see the nature of the stroke, what the color was, how the paint was applied, practically impossible to replicate, for me, but it was the thing that sparked me wanting to make portraits when I came back to the US. I just started having people over and painted everybody.

It’s interesting to me that you say you looked at this van Dyck painting and tried to figure it out.

It always impresses me that you could have those thoughts about a certain painting by van Dyck, a quality that a certain kind of viewer will respond to, and have the exact same approach looking at a painting by Robert Ryman. I can feel exactly the same way about it, but it’s chalk and cheese. So you’re looking to Robert Ryman and you’re looking at a van Dyck and why are they at all on a parallel with each other? But, they definitely are for me.

How do you begin a painting?

Making stuff like the canvas on the stretcher—making the support.

The ones on the wall here are all the same size.

They’re all the same size for a reason. The proportion was intended to be very referential to the 35mm slide proportion, a subtle sort of reference to seeing the world through photographs.

It’s a familiar proportion.

And to my way of thinking, because the source material comes from Google Earth, I wanted it to refer to this notion of mediated seeing as opposed to direct experiential seeing.

Are you still working with sites of tragedy?

I am.

How did that start?

This particular project started when I was in a residency at Ucross in 2015. I didn’t really have a project that I was working on or have a body of work that I was in the middle of. I had the idea that it would be interesting to go around and see things through Google Earth. I had this thought of, what if I go to southern France where van Gogh painted, go to Arles? He’s a hero of mine. I love his work. So I went into Arles, dropped the little yellow guy arbitrarily in Arles and ended up in his little back alley and it looked really pedestrian and uneventful and not romantic, kind of trashy, like cinderblock constructed homes, and so I thought, “this is kind of cool.” This is an updated version of him traipsing along the road looking for the motif. So I made a painting of that, and I thought I could go to all the places van Gogh went. When I was back here in the studio, I was working on building the stretchers for doing that work in that proportion because I wanted to maintain the notion of seeing the world mediated that way.

That’s when the attacks happened in Paris. I was in the studio when I heard about that so I went on Google Earth to see those places and they look really normal. There weren’t updated photos, just a little café on a street corner in Paris. So, I decided to make paintings of those places. It just really struck me how unspectacular they looked, unromantic. I compose by moving a little guy around and seeing from different angles whatever their car captures. So I use my sensibility and composition within the limits of what was available in the thousands of photos they take, so I in a sense I composed them, but I didn’t take the pictures. I wasn’t there. Then as I was making those paintings I was thinking about how quickly you think about Columbine, then there was San Bernardino, there was Newtown, Connecticut. This is happening, bam bam bam, left and right. It happened not long ago, it happened 15 years ago, it’s going to happen again. [This interview occurred before the shooting in Las Vegas.]

You go on Google Earth. These could be anywhere. Then you make them into paintings and they have lives as paintings several steps from what happened. So what is your thought process about the meaning of the work? Where is that original impetus that’s translated through all the steps to the final Steve Hayes painting?

Well, it’s not as direct as that question suggests, that I’m going to do this, so it means that.

I would hope that the answer is more convoluted.

There has been no abatement of that insistence on beauty for me in these paintings. So as rough and kind of un-finessed as they might be, some of them might be, I find that quite beautiful and the painting that’s a quality that really engages me…The strategy for this work is that I want to pull you in. I’m not trying to tell you what the content is. I want you first of all to be moved by this thing, this painting. Then, once you’ve been moved, to have your legs taken out from under you by having to face the reality of what it is you’re actually seeing. Is what’s moving you that knowledge or that object? So it’s a perverse strategy, but I think it’s an effective one. It’s different from making an illustration.

How do you feel about being an old-fashioned painter in the area era of video and computer-generated art?

I’m glad that I have colleagues that are interested in all the stuff that I’m interested in. I think the paint still has quite a lot to say. I’ve invested a lot of time learning how to move it around. I like the time painting takes. I like the fact of the painting takes time to make. I put it all together. I’m using Google Earth. Over the years I’ve used Hi8 tapes [analog camcorder tapes] and photos and sandwiched slides together—used technology as an aid to painting.

The classic abstract square expressionist question: How do you know when a painting is finished?

Exactly.

Have you ever had a painting that you had for awhile, thought was finished, and then you saw something to change?

Absolutely. Years ago I worked at the Phillips Collection. Marjorie Phillips had this story that that she had to physically stop Bonnard from coming into the gallery and painting on his painting. To answer that question honestly, it’s not a “damn I’m done.” It’s more like I really have been working on this painting for a while, I’ve sort of lost interest in it, or it’s not engaging me right now—sort of like by default it’s done—because you could always keep going.

Do you have a regular studio routine?

Yes and no. During the regular school year my teaching schedule is so intense that Friday is my studio day and then one day on the weekend. In the summertime I’m basically here most days, five days a week at least for a few hours. It’s not like I wait for inspiration and I go to work. I come in here and sit around if I need to. Work begets work. Sometimes just being, being around.

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