New York

Alex Hay

When we use the phrase “like watching paint dry,” it’s typically to register our impatience with the leisurely unfurling of some event over which we have no control. But recently, as I looked at Alex Hay’s new paintings, the phrase came to mind in the form of a peculiar compliment and, perhaps more to the point, as a way of articulating a methodological paradigm for the artist’s long—if arguably interrupted—oeuvre. By interrupted, I mean that Hay, a fixture of the New York art world in the 1960s and early ’70s, abruptly quit the scene at the moment he seemed to have it made, and it has been unclear just what he’s been doing for the last three decades or so.

A participant in iconic performance events such as Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver’s 9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering (1966), Hay also once busied himself producing art best described as a kind of decelerated Pop. If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is borne out nonetheless in Hay’s über-realism, which in the ’60s he pursued through both painting and sculpture. Hay’s touch in these works was unexpressive yet almost cloying in its striving for a craftsman’s perfection. He laboriously and without technological aids produced a nearly seven-foot canvas of a cash-register tape (Cash Register Slip, 1966); a human-scale paper sack (Paper Bag, 1968); and a stenciled label the size of a small billboard (Label, 1966). But however cool and generic they may sound, Hays’s giant simulacra are so scrupulously rendered as to feel downright loved. Never mind that the viewer need only take a glance to get the gestalt of the thing—the point is to harness the gaze as with a decoy and then surprise the unsuspecting eye with shifts of scale and color that render too-familiar items suddenly strange.

Hay began showing again in New York in 2002, when he exhibited a number of his older works at Peter Freeman, Inc. But for his recent, second show at the gallery, he offered up a handful of works executed between 2003 and 2007. Save for two related canvases that showed up in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, these works are the first Hay has presented since he opted out. Six large paintings each detail with exactitude the contours, texture, and hues of pieces of scrap wood collected by Hay. Anomaly Blue, 2006, with its ragged trompe l’oeil stripes, looks, from across the room, like it’s been decades in the making. The planes undulate in rapid horizontal succession, bearing the marks of countless iterations of scraping and repainting. Yet, as with Old Green ’05, 2005 (which masquerades as a monochrome) and Past Time, 2007 (almost photographic in effect), the illusion wavers as we step too near or too far away. Up close, the works threaten to dissolve, an unlikely neo-impressionism. From too far away, they resolve into versions of obstinate, ambivalent abstraction.

A friend once told me that there is no such thing as objecthood. “Things,” she said, “are just slow events.” Perhaps this helps explain why a batch of paintings depicting nothing more than their subjects’ and their own dumbness—each taking months to produce, by way of elaborate sketching, stenciling, and spraying—are somehow moving. Imported from the world exactly as they are, yet transformed into something utterly other, the worthless bits of detritus hold court, instances of quiet theatrical endeavor, refusing to give up their stubborn tackiness and just dry.

Johanna Burton