Dan Hays

30 Underwood Street

Dan Hays’ recent exhibition included several paintings that depict an empty cage—the sort of thing used to house a guinea pig or hamster, with a plastic tray for a base, and top and sides made from wire. There is no pet visible, however, nor any evidence of one: no food, water, bedding, or exercise wheel. All we see is the structure itself, something designed to confine nature so we can observe it, smile at and talk nonsense to it, admire it, and let it impress upon us the necessities of responsible existence. Insofar as this image evokes the mundane and ubiquitous rituals of pet-owning, Hays continues to closely observe the details of ordinary life—things that would normally be dismissed pejoratively as “suburban.” As in his previous work, however, such subjects can more properly be viewed as the material for a reflection on painting itself.

The object presented is a straightforward rectangular container, depicted axonometrically and positioned so that each edge of the canvas is touched at some point by one of the cage’s corners, leaving four discrete areas of empty canvas. Each of these areas is painted in one of a range of closely related tones, making it hard to think of them as providing a “background” for the cage; instead they constitute only part of the surface upon which everything is happening. The regular, parallel lines of the wire rods, together with the way in which verticals and horizontals cross over and behind one another, create an orderly pattern on the canvas, which Hays paints according to a variety of color schemes. Some of the titles, such as Harmony in Green, 1998, or Harmony in Pink, 1998, suggest a concern with how the play of light in and around the reflective confines of the cage can be evoked in pigment. The results obviously recall Bridget Riley’s work, but one can also sense the ghost of David Hockney’s struggle with the representation of water through the use of different painterly techniques. In fact, Hays seems healthily unafraid of such references: they are intentional, built into the paintings and thus conveyed with authority. Spring Snow, 1997, a triptych of variously indistinct or “blurred” pine trees covered in snow, nods to Gerhard Richter without demanding anything of his work in the way of justification.

CMYK [Separation], 1998, another cage painting, refers more directly to the relationship between painting and photography, specifically the way in which the photographic process necessitates the use of color separations to reconstitute a full color image. Negative Capability, 1998, the last of the cages, might convince us that what we think we see on the canvas is nothing but figure and trope, a display of artfulness generating the illusion of substance. The anchor in objectivity for this as well as the other works, however, is that their dimensions are dictated by the height and reach of Hays’ own body.

Photography’s shaping of reality is also an essential part of Vacation, 1998—six small canvases arranged one above the other to form a column on the wall. The paintings are all the same size, and although individual images would seem to demand otherwise, they are all oriented the same way. They show postcardlike scenes: a geyser, a glacier, a coastal city, and so on. Some viewers might recognize the sites, but their generic nature seems more important—they are markers of experiences that cannot be assimilated without being represented and shared. The top image, placed on its side, is of a lighthouse, one of those signposts that gives a sense of distance to various places in the rest of the world. In this instance, all the signs are blank.

Michael Archer