Master of illusion

Kirk Hayes' artistic eye tricks transform into brooding social commentary at the Conduit Gallery

Surely it's masking tape. When you closely scrutinize each of Kirk Hayes' paintings -- the wood grain, the torn paper, the meandering glue splatters -- you eventually make out that it's all actually paint. But when you walk to the next one, you'd swear the illusion has finally given way to reality: That yellowed, translucent masking tape scrolling down either side of "Shadow Boxing" has got to be real tape. Paint can't do tricks like that.

But it can in the hands of local wonder Hayes. It can also impersonate the seared eyes of fresh-cut wood, the pulpy heft of corrugated cardboard. In the end, no matter how much technical prowess Hayes proves with these flourishes, it's the darkly implied subject matter that seeps from the work and clenches your guts. Once you get in the car to drive home, it's the imagery you remember, not the tricks.

Hayes' one-man show at Conduit Gallery reflects two crucial things: 1) the eventual merging of a prolific artist's technical and visceral leanings, and 2) proof that a self-taught artist can fool the most seasoned art viewer.

One title says it all: "Humor, Repugnance, Sweet Sorrow, Time and Tenderness"(1999). Hayes can pack all of this and more into a single painting.
One title says it all: "Humor, Repugnance, Sweet Sorrow, Time and Tenderness"(1999). Hayes can pack all of this and more into a single painting.

Hayes' illusional technique isn't traditional trompe l'oeil (literally, "fool the eye"), a novelty movement spawned in the late 1800s as an exaggerated type of naturalism. No, that particular genre, with its 3-D looking columns and textures and receding shadows, was more about decoration and visual surprise -- the granddaddy of 1960s op art. Early trompe l'oeil was a precursor to photorealism and hid the painting process. Hayes' trompe-l'oeil is instead a droll mockery of artistic media. You may think you're looking at the raw wood of his signboard surfaces, but Hayes has covered the real surface with smooth paper before deftly re-creating the same texture in oil paint.

And from there, you can trust that nothing is as it seems -- not the look of metal, of fluid, of anything. He's not hiding the technique of painting, but highlighting the illusionary character of art itself and driving his angst-ridden points home by doing so. Hayes' version of trompe l'oeil owes more to graphic design and pop art than to older aesthetics, in the end looking like collage and packing the extra wallop of emotional baggage.

Like many strong artists with distinctive styles (you wouldn't mistake a Hayes painting for anything else), he has created his own brooding iconography, repeat images of bodily fluids, dismembered parts, the sense of impending doom or in-place alienation. In "The Artist Pissing at the Moon," a human silhouette relieves itself on the dusky earth, as numb and disdainful as an Eric Fischl nightmare.

Continuing in that vein, "Turkey Boy" is a torn-shaped childish figure bent over a chopping block. These images aren't entirely without humor; Hayes reworks cartoon aesthetics and droll assessment of self-deprecation. How many of these suffering creatures are soliciting their misery? It's human tragicomedy, an artist tipping his hat to satire.

And to Philip Guston. In works like "Sandwich Head" and "Pile to X-Cess," Hayes stacks disembodied fingers like lunch meat and twists them into jutting pillars -- their nail beds pierced with slivers of wood and iron. Bodiless, sinewy arms splay in plumbing-tube directions, coarse stubble sprouts from undefined peachy flesh. Guston, in fact, is the only influence Hayes will name, and in the wake of a thousand pale Guston wannabes, Hayes may be the most effective progeny of the Guston sensibility.

Hayes' aesthetic evolution, from illusion specialist to social commentator, reflects a bit of Guston mythology. Guston went from mildly noted abstract expressionist to a powerful, paint-splattered polemicist. His imagery moved, quite suddenly in 1970, from his mostly innocuous landscape-like fogs to -- egad -- KKK members puffing fat cigars, pointing hairy accusing fingers from piles of heavy autos. This shift tossed Guston into the art-world leper colony for a spell before a new generation saw the wit and bile of his subject matter and embraced this painter's second phase as incisive sociopolitical art.

Hayes, too, seems not only to have adopted more pointed messages, but to have turned a critical microscope upon himself and the art world as well. In Hayes' "Wheel in that Paint-o-Rama Bastard," a grossly pink and bulbous creature, spouting medusa-like paintbrushes from its quivering body, enters the picture plane on a wagon from stage right, primed for some type of execution.

"Hope," perhaps Hayes' most eloquent work, barely refers to any illusion whatsoever: The back end of a cow and the front end of a bicycle are joined by nothing more than a few pieces of tape. The boldly painted background, part green, part red, looks more like a cheeky, twisted advertisement for what happens when two elements are so tragically mismatched. The transmogrified creature can move neither forward nor back -- it can only stand in eternal, wasted silence.

Amazingly, and despite the Guston springboard, Hayes owes all this commentary and skill to no one but himself. He's not formally trained, never took art application or theory classes -- he taught himself to paint and stuck with trompe l'oeil because he knew he was good at it. But no one would mistake his work for naive or self-taught art. The Forth Worthian started showing in the early '90s at Dutch Philips, moved in the mid-'90s to Rachel Harris Gallery, and has recently, at age 41, been championed by Nancy Whitenack at Conduit. In the meantime, such heavies as Ted Pillsbury, ex-head of the Kimbell and current director of Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, has snatched up a handful of Hayes' works ("He has more of my work than my mom does," Hayes says.)

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