Gerald Hayes, Off The Edge (1991), pastel on paper, 19″ x 18″; courtesy the artist
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The paintings and drawings of an artist will often reveal diverse aspects of one vision. This is due, in part, to the particularities of each medium and how they can define an artist’s process. The irony of Gerald Hayes’ drawings is that they are more painterly than his paintings. Hayes’ paintings, after all, are plotted considerations of space, rhythm, texture and the nature of the art object itself. They’re investigations of the mechanics of pictorial structure. This may be why his oeuvre consists less of “beautiful paintings” than of contraptions, expertly contrived and tautly configured.
If Hayes’ paintings are stencilled, detached and graphic, the drawings are extemporaneous, sensual and open-ended. This isn’t a value judgement. If the modern eye will value Hayes’ drawings for their spontaneity, it shouldn’t deny the curious vigor of his paintings. Because the drawings have a richness one associates with oil paintings–in the way, say, one color is dragged over another and how that yield a sense of light or space–they distinguish themselves as more than preparatory studies. While Hayes has based paintings on a few specific images, the drawings are independent works that retain an improvisatory flavor. The paintings and drawings explore similar motifs in dissimilar manners.
Hayes fashions his drawings by swiping the broad side of a pastel stick over a sheet of paper. In doing so, he creates forms that swoop across the surface, delineating the space of the drawing and themselves. These forms, which act as surrogate brushstrokes, encompass the paper in such a way that its unmarked portions emerge as the focal point of a given drawing. For Hayes, the white of the paper is an integral part of each image; this play of positive and negative space, of foreground and background, can be laconic and witty. In Off The Edge (1991), four passes of pastel–one black, the others rust-brown and orange–shimmy into the pictorial field, locking into space. While these marks define the compositional limits of the page, the white of the paper nudges into them, establishing a formidable presence. But just as one feels that the drawing has settled, it begins to move again. The rhythmic elegance of Hayes’ mark-making remains undiminished. Off The Edge is simultaneously fixed and fluid, stationary and shifting. It’s vitality is decidedly quirky.
Gerald Hayes, Pipeline With Sky (1991), pastel on paper, 19″ x 18″; courtesy the artist
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Sometimes the sweep of the pastel stick asserts if autonomy. At first glance, Untitled 5/19/91–with its serpentine form nestled inside a rule square–appears to be an exercise in pure form, asking the question: How does one shape fit inside another? (You can almost discern Hayes the teacher in this drawing.) But Untitled 5/19/91 is also a study in character. The central form has its own unruly personality and an uncanny, almost sculptural, materiality. Here Hayes the Sensualist comes to the fore. One senses his delight in the way the pastel catches the tooth of the paper, creating unsuspected nuances in tone and texture; or how a swerve in gesture alters the density of the mark. Some critics decry formalist art as cold and academic. Hayes proves it can be muscular and droll.
Hayes’ drawings flirt with the diagrammatic, but they aren’t dependent on formula or theory. Each piece comes into being on its own terms, evolving naturally. A drawing may begin as a squiggle on the page, which will then suggest another mark which will suggest a color and so on, until the image seemingly resolves itself. Hayes gauges each drawing carefully–economical pictures such as these are the result not of luck but of forbearance–so that the final image holds tautly. The debt to Cubism is evident in Hayes’ compositions and there’s not a wasted moment in them. One can see the deliberation in how the space between two tubular shapes begins to suggest a head-like form in Pipeline With Sky (1991). Similarly, the pictorial rigor of five “brushstrokes” occupying a circular frame in Untitled 6/5/91 (1991) makes for a kind of sober slapstick, physical and comic but in a measured way. (Is it reading too much into the work to associate its fidgety energy and compacted space with the artist’s adopted hometown, New York City?) Hayes’ drawings are those of an artist who spends more time in the studio looking than he does making.
Gerald Hayes, Shell With Sky (1991), pastel on paper, 19″ x 18″; courtesy the artist
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One of the pleasures of the drawings is in seeing how an art of limited means can encompass a variety of experience and emotions. The drawings are fragile, tough, magical and even erotic. Open Infinity (1994) has an atmosphere that’s downright sultry. And while Hayes is something of a pragmatist in his approach to making pictures, art’s ability to take on its own life constantly perplexes him. Hayes thrives on such befuddlement.
Hayes refers to Shell With Sky (1991) as “my Georgia O’Keefe”. He says this sardonically–Hayes is no admirer of O’Keefe’s drab mysticism–but looking at the drawing you know exactly what he means. While its unfurling forms do recall O’Keefe’s floral studies, it’s the pale colors and wan light in the drawing, set off by glimpses of deep blue, that link it with the older artist. Shell With Sky is a romantic drawing–or should I say romantic’s drawing? The work’s emotional timbre is summed up in the way in which the central stroke of the image snuggles around a blip of white paper. It’s an amusing and tender detail that O’Keefe would have envied.
Ultimately, Hayes emerges as an atypical formalist. His organic forms, snug compositions and commanding, but never impudent, touch link him with certain artists and schools: there’s a soupcon of de Kooning in Hayes’ looping gestures and a Constructivist bent to the compositions. But the work defies easy categorization–which is as it should be. In an era without a defining artistic orthodoxy–was there ever a time truly governed by such a conceit?–the art world is a jumble of styles and attitudes, confounding and exciting. Hayes’ work suggests that the knotty tenor of the times is best met with humor, patience and a wry appreciation for complexity. His sharp and eccentric drawings distinguish him, very much, as an artist of the here-and-now.
© 1997 Mario Naves
A version of this essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Gerald Hayes; Drawings After The Arcade, 1991-1996, an exhibition at the Southern Cross University Art Museum, Australia.