New York

James Havard

There is a certain playful fascination in trompe l’oeil illusionism, and its use in James Havard’s painting is no exception. Harvard’s paintings, however, are not representational in the usual sense; he fools our eye by using vocabulary taken from the traditional language of painting, such as brushstrokes and heavily smeared geometric shapes. This is done illusionistically by creating the projected shadows of these “pictorial objects.” As a result, they appear to float over the picture’s “real surface,” as if suspended on an imaginary transparent plane. If Havard’s paintings are to be interpreted as abstract, then the use of trompe l’oeil, which is the most conspicuous feature of his paintings, is questionable. The very use of this illusionistic method forces one to a regressive reading of the pictures. Since abstract painting negated traditional illusionism, calling it back undermines and/or misunderstands the core and ambition of abstraction. By breaking the rules of the language developed in abstraction, Havard excludes himself from being an abstract painter in any sophisticated sense. His trompe l’oeil illusions lead one into the world of three-dimensionality where objects are depicted in space and therefore cast shadows. The fact that the objects are taken from the vocabulary of “pure” painting becomes a matter of secondary importance. Abstract art tried to establish a pictorial context in which spatial tensions (Hofmann’s “push-pull” for example) were achieved through the manipulation of color, texture, shape, etc., whereas Havard’s pictures render this spatial tension literally through trompe l’oeil effects which trivialize it as an expressive pictorial occurrence. In other words, a gimmick is substituted for the self-imposed limitations inherent in abstract painting.

And yet it is also possible to interpret Havard’s painting differently, i.e. as a type of photo-Realist abstraction, as is revealed in the work of John Clem Clarke. Lichtenstein’s “brushstrokes” of some ten years ago offer themselves as a likely association. These “brushstrokes,” however, were made in Lichtenstein’s mechanistic manner, thus cutting themselves off from traditional abstract painting and assuming a complex literary iconography which Havard’s paintings clearly do not possess. In photo-Realism, one of the heirs of Pop art, one can find the closest source of inspiration for Havard’s pictures. In this case, photographs could not have been used, but photo-Realist canvases and their pictorial information could have functioned as a direct source, revealed not only in the use of conventional trompe l’oeil effects, but also by a more subtle and masterfully employed technique. Some of the heavily brushed surfaces are delicately sprayed with an air brush from only one side (using a different color from that of the painted surface) so as to yield an effect similar to color solarization in photography. The realistic content of Havard’s paintings is heightened by his use of crayon lines, reminiscent of wall graffiti. These lines enrich the textural effect and invoke semiliterary meanings inherent in street drawing and primitive pictography. Their literary aura is also reinforced by some of the titles given to the paintings, such as Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Dusty Dress, etc. James Havard’s art, which cannot be accepted as tough abstract painting, does, however, make sense as an esoteric form of realism.

Michael Sgan-Cohen