At some point during Abstract Expressionism’s heyday, Ad Reinhardt — or perhaps it was Barnett Newman, they were both hardcore painters — quipped, “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” To appreciate the matrix of composition, subject, texture, surface, color, and whatever other kitchen sinks go into a serious painting, one must take up multiple viewpoints and distances. A truly engaging painting can induce a reverie that pulls you within nose-distance of the canvas, as you revel in the ridges of a meaty brushstroke, before sending you drifting backward to bring the entire composition into focus.
Kirk Hayes’s paintings at Horton Gallery occupy a realm somewhere between the trompe-l’œil earnestness of William Harnett’s hyperrealistically rendered sheets of paper in The Artist’s Letter Rack (1879) and the tragicomic sumptuousness of the bulbous-headed smoker lying about in Philip Guston’s 1973 Stationary Figure (both pictures are on view at the Met). At first glance, the cartoonish figure in Hayes’s painting Death Mask Sitting With Cigar (2016) appears to be collaged from coarse paperboard or thin painted wood sheets glued to a heavy wood panel. The figure is lying down, not sitting, and its head is covered with white goo. Perhaps it depicts a plaster cast in the making, since three yellow breathing straws jut out from the covered face, throwing soft shadows. Or maybe, considering the absurdity of the image, the man has been leveled by a thrown cream pie.
Get up close and personal and add to the enigma of the title the fact that everything — including the paper straws — is crafted from oil paint applied with uncanny verisimilitude. Even the exposed wood-grain ground of this roughly four-foot-square concoction is a trompe-l’œil image atop an actual wood panel. Suddenly reinforced is the fact that all representational painting is false, a distillation of three-dimensional existence into 2-D illusion. Abstraction dreamed of liberating us from such lies through the unassailable materiality of drips and stains; Hayes instead confounds perception by painting portraits, complete with shadows, of the abstract shapes constituting his absurd collages.
Hayes (born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1958) initially builds a collage out of various materials, which he then meticulously re-creates in paint on panel, after which he destroys the original collage. In other words, he starts with the facts, transforms them into a deception, and then destroys the evidence. When you perceive scabby pieces of masking tape posing as Band-Aids on ludicrously pink flesh, strands of hair fashioned from wire, or pushpin holes in a sky-blue board with splintered edges, what you’re actually seeing is virtuoso paint application.
Yet before you lose yourself in the fascinating journey across these remarkable surfaces, stay a moment before the bold compositions, which echo Guston’s depictions of characters who wear their melancholy like overcoats. With scorch marks on the ground and a blackened pall across the horizon, Humanity Insanity (2016) offers a sardonic vision of a postapocalyptic landscape. A swollen hand, its scarred fingernails like wandering eyeballs, reaches out from a dark hole to caress a flattened flower. The faux wood-grain ground confronts the viewer like a construction fence, yet the black pit (in which we glimpse the top of a mangy bald head) upends notions of illusionistic space, a painted doppelgänger of the physical cutout form glued to the wood in Hayes’s original collage. Where Harnett was imitating life, Hayes doubles down by obsessively depicting artifice.
As Met curator Kelly Baum notes in an essay on Hayes, trompe-l’œil painting got its start in Europe in the 1550s but only took hold in America in the nineteenth century, when, “thanks to scientific developments as well as the proliferation of lies, humbuggery, deceptions, and frauds, American citizens increasingly came to doubt the reliability of vision.” The 1800s gave us not only Harnett’s photorealistic still-life paintings and such ebullient frauds as P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” (a monkey’s head stitched onto a fish’s tail) but also — according to a consensus of historians — a parade of inept, immoral, and corrupt presidents, ranging from Zachary Taylor in 1849 through Ulysses Grant in 1877 (with only Abraham Lincoln breaking the streak). Perhaps there is a correlation between fraudulent leadership and art that bamboozles the eye. Whatever the reason, Hayes’s bewitching imagery has converged with our historical moment like a gorgeous train wreck.