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Peter Halley, the don of the 1980s Neo-Geometric Conceptualism movement and acolyte of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, has work on view at McClain Gallery in "Peter Halley: Paintings."Halley lay low during most of the '90s, but he's been back on the radar for several years now. A lot of '80s art stars are resurfacing these days. Some, like Basquiat, posthumously; others, like Schnabel, unsuccessfully. But Halley's work really seems to have survived and thrived.
Halley started out making abstract paintings that read like diagrams. They often used bright, artificial, Day-Glo colors, and they were constructed with simple visual components. There were "cells" (squares), "prisons" ( squares with a barred window) and "conduits" (angular lines leading into or connecting the cells). He covered some of the shapes with a thick layer of Roll-A-Tex, the cheesy, lumpy material used on the ceilings of bad apartments. The components looked like isolated containment cells linked only by infrastructure.
The artist is nothing if not consistent. He is still using the Roll-A-Tex, the cells, the prisons and the conduits from the '80s, but he's putting them together in different ways. The compositions are slightly more involved -- he's sometimes piecing several canvases together. And the colors are much more adventurous and sometimes downright pretty: In addition to the Day-Glo paint, he's also throwing in metallic paint and colors such as a pearlescent lavender. In his painting Vacancy (2007), the lumpy Roll-A-Tex of a tall, narrow "prison" is coated with a lush layer of lavender. The prison next to it is an acidic yellow, with blue background visible behind its "empty" bars. The painting is anchored by another canvas, long and narrow, attached at the bottom and painted a Day-Glo fuchsia. Conduits cycle the composition back into itself, and the colors are optically aquiver.
Even Halley's stacked paintings are working pretty well. He's stacking square and rectangle canvases like blocks and hanging them on the wall. Painters sometimes run into problems when they get sculptural with their canvases, but the stacking and the simple cell and prison forms are well suited to each other. The small canvases are thick and object-like with their dense coating of Roll-A-Tex.
Halley's paintings are pretty straightforward, but the artist's dialogue about them has always been anything but. His early paintings were pretty minimalist, depicting a single large square with a line of conduit, but he wrote and spoke extensively about the dense theory behind them. Halley's work was influenced by Baudrillard's theory of simulation. In the early '90s, I was in a painting workshop he taught at a Vienna art academy. As he gave a slide lecture about his work to the class, he explained the elements of his paintings, discussing each in terms of Baudrillard. I remember one instance when Halley was going through a painting and confessed, in a slightly embarrassed tone, that a particular color choice didn't have a larger philosophical import -- he made the decision based on instinct! Egads!
Halley told us the most important thing for young artists to do was to join a reading group. This was the early '90s -- post-modernism was still all the rage, and a lot of American artists went around adopting French philosophers as their patron saints. His was Baudrillard.
Halley is a petite guy who, at the time, smoked really big cigars. He'd made Baudrillard the equivalent of an intellectual bodyguard and then hid behind him. I wondered why. Halley attended Andover, then Yale, not exactly slouch schools, but from some things he said, it seemed like Yale was a pretty intellectually brutal experience. He went on to get his MFA at the University of New Orleans, then returned to New York in 1980 and joined a reading group. Baudrillard's ideas may have inspired Halley's work, but it seems like their primary role was as a defensive strategy: See, my paintings have to be good, because they are based on the work of this really smart French guy!
For all Halley's ideas and reading of French philosophers, the work is still pretty formalist. He is primarily playing around with color, shapes and texture. Smearing pigment on a surface goes back to cave painting, but Halley is trying to invest his version of it with a ridiculous degree of philosophical import. Artists read and are influenced by all kinds of things -- string theory was really big a few years back -- but it's kind of silly to try to load up your artwork with more ideas than it can carry.
There can be intellectual insecurity and paranoia with certain artists. For some, painting is somehow not a smart enough thing to do, maybe because a lot of it isabout manual labor and visual instinct. With all the elaborate ideas behind Halley's work, only the simplest ones come through to the viewer. His symbolic geometric forms are not going to convey as many ideas as a philosophical treatise, no matter how much he wants them to.
I like the recent paintings better than the more minimalist ones from the '80s. They feel less fettered. I'll wager it's because Halley has mellowed. He seems to be letting himself actually enjoy the visual aspects of painting.
Whatever his undergraduate years at Yale were like, Halley's now Director of Graduate Studies in Painting and Printmaking at the Yale University School of Art. And Baudrillard is dead. Maybe Halley had him taken out because he doesn't need him anymore.