Seeing Is Disbelieving
It's an old joke: The wife catches the husband kissing another woman, and when he denies it, she sputters, "But I saw you with my own eyes!" Fast on his feet, the husband responds, "Well, who're you gonna believe? Your own husband? Or your lying eyes?" It's a favorite because it speaks to a truth: Our eyes do lie to us. Sometimes this is a matter of position and perspective (hence, instant replay in sports); sometimes it's a consequence of the blinders of experience, ideology or desire; and sometimes somebody's just messing with us.
And artists have been messing with us for thousands of years with the illusory practice of trompe l'oeil (literally, "deceive the eye"). Zeuxis painted a bowl of grapes so convincingly that birds came to eat them. The excavators of Pompeii discovered rooms with frescoed murals of city vistas that, if one stood in the right spot, gave the illusion of looking out from a terrace. In the 17th century, Flemish artists mimicked shelves of crockery and the interiors of cabinets. And it should come as no surprise that, in the Gilded Age America of P.T. Barnum and the robber barons, illusionist paintings by John Franklin Harnett, John Peto and others sold like the proverbial hotcakes. Even today, Web sites offer kits to create a trompe l'oeil vase of flowers in a trompe l'oeil niche right on your very own wall -- or, if you prefer, architectural details, like those on the north and east walls of this publication's office building.
Encountering the first Houston solo appearance of Fort Worth artist Kirk Hayes, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you're looking at stuff made by a child -- and not a particularly talented child. The works appear to be collages made of torn and stained paper, ripped cardboard and plywood; the figures in them are rough and cartoonish (and some aren't even that sophisticated). The art is pretty dismal-looking, actually, with blotched and scraped surfaces and masking-tape Xs. But there is no paper, soiled or otherwise, no cardboard, no plywood, no tape, and these aren't collages. They're paintings. All these Sad Sack pictorial elements have been rendered in oil on signboard and, to sow further confusion, mounted on plywood.
The deception is carried off with such skill that it takes a while to accept the truth; there may be some folks from opening night who're still in denial. Once you accept it, however, you want to show others, to watch them be fooled too. Like the sophomoric practical joke played on you that you can't wait to pull on someone else, these paintings inspire an impish glee. But if that were all there was to Hayes's work, the charm would fade pretty quickly. There's also a pleasantly unsettling undercurrent: Mouse-O-Tear features a stiff, lanky figure in Mickey Mouse ears trying to stuff itself into a small hole in a wall, as if to escape to another existence; and in Scuttlers, two metal boxes with wheels and human arms scuttle against the backdrop of two horizontal cones, suggesting a merger of man and machine in an abstract landscape of geometric forms (sound familiar, Houston?).
My favorite, Flesh & Blood Chair Dance, has a human figure standing atop a chair, hands on the chair's back and legs apparently pumping at the knees. Just above the figure, small and perhaps in pencil, is the following exhortation: Jump on a chair and drop your pants and spell out mortal with your ass. I'm not entirely sure where that came from, but given Hayes's insistence on the seeming decrepitude of the elements in his images -- those abject faux stains and water rings, the sorry raggedness of the faux cardboard, those pathetic little faux masking-tape crosses patching together what doesn't need patching -- it seems a safe bet that he's got entropy on his mind. In the closed system that is the body, what could be a better hint of inevitable degradation than that faint, amorphous cloud emanating from our chair dancer's posterior?
There's a sly, anarchic intelligence at work here. Trompe l'oeil's interest is the attempt to subvert our confidence in the evidence of our senses. Hayes's paintings subvert that subversion, in that the fooling of the senses, as brilliantly as it's done in these paintings (did I mention he's self-taught?), is just their most superficial aspect. More important is the deception, disorder and the tang of decay. In From the continuing to live campaign, Kilroy goes off to battle in a tank bristling with phalluses. Coronation offers a crown sitting atop what one hopes are supposed to be potatoes but suspects are not (why would someone put masking tape on turds?). Icarian Escape pictures a rubber-band-powered balsa-wood plane flying through the air, poignantly conflating childlike escape fantasies with the hubris of that famous flying failure. And in Begging Innocence, a pink rhinolike critter stands upright in profile and proffers a small cup (for spare change? for more milk?). Does innocence go begging in these jaded times when we know that appearances are deceiving? Or is innocence what that poor critter is begging for, so that it might believe itself something more substantial than daubs of paint on signboard? As we, in our innocence, believe ourselves more substantial than flesh and blood.
With "Kirk Hayes: Paintings," we come to a sad milestone in Houston's cultural history. When this show closes, so does the door of James Gallery, as Kathleen James and her husband, artist Gary Retherford, pack up to move to Arizona (no, not Phoenix). For 25 years, Kathleen has enriched the art scene here, not only with the artists that her original eye has brought to our attention, but also through her service on too-many-to-name institutional boards and through her passionate advocacy for Houston's continued cultural vitality. James Gallery will continue, albeit on a smaller scale, in its new home, but that's little consolation for the Bayou City.
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