New York

View of “Peter Halley,” 2017. From left: The Line, 2017; Revolt, 2017; Rift, 2017.

View of “Peter Halley,” 2017. From left: The Line, 2017; Revolt, 2017; Rift, 2017.

Peter Halley

View of “Peter Halley,” 2017. From left: The Line, 2017; Revolt, 2017; Rift, 2017.

Peter Halley’s latest show—his first with Greene Naftali—was spectacular, though severely and queasily so. Setting the tone for severity, the artist commandeered the Brutalist ambience of the gray, cinderblock-enclosed courtyard adjacent to the gallery entrance with a prominently placed, bodily scaled, faux-concrete-and-asphalt work from 1994, Cell with Conduit, thrust several inches out from the wall by a hefty steel armature. A distilled (one-cell, one-conduit), quintessential Halley composition that signaled, as always, a core contemporary paradox—the isolating effect of mediated connection—the work looked like a company logo emblazoning the facade of a sci-fi industrial complex. On the back wall just to the right, a large, reflective, metallic print bearing a one-to-one reproduction of the surface to which it was adhered, amplified the gathering sense of artifice and alienation. Having stamped his brand on the architecture, Halley then brought the queasiness, creeping in from the tall, narrow, interstitial lobby space via a series of vast wraparound digital prints, Five Yellow Explosions, 2017, that consisted of radiating patterns of cartoonlike detonations illuminated by orange-tinted windows and sickly yellow lights.

And that was just the prelude. Inside the gallery’s cavernous main space, the staging effects were ratcheted up to almost comical heights. On the initial approach, one noticed that the building’s entire back wall was again covered with a shimmering representation of itself, this time supporting two hulking, grays-only paintings—well-crafted patchwork compositions both, one resembling an array of Pebblecrete pavers and the other an assortment of prison windows. The viewer’s attention was then drawn to the ocean of bilious yellow-green fluorescence rolling in to drench her vision. The central columns and the remaining three walls were painted from floor to ceiling with a swath of what is surely the brightest flat acidic-citrus paint available. Popping out of the enveloping incandescence was a suite of seven eye-scorchingly vivid and discordant paintings, each sporting three or four trademark cellblock windows with corresponding linkages. Obviously, Halley has had his technique down pat for decades. The geometrically demarcated forms are filled in precisely, mechanically, with solid plastic color applied to a limited range of dynamically juxtaposed surfaces: primed canvas; smooth, built-up (as though embossed) paint; and a bumpy, stucco-like effect care of Roll-A-Tex (a texture additive the artist has been using since the early 1980s). The installation also included an intermittent sound component supplied by Mexican-American singer and actress Lila Downs, which, on my visit, consisted of a mellifluous, melodramatic number that, while pleasantly stirring, struggled to connect meaningfully with anything else; and, tucked away in a separate space beyond the far corner of the big room, a fabulous Robert Morris sculpture, Untitled, 1978, composed of copper-clad architectural elements in formal dialogue with a large funhouse mirror. One assumes that Halley admires the work’s symbolic entanglement of urban structure and reality-distorting amusement.

And, of course, there’s another, invisible, element at work here—theory. Shadowing his practice for nearly four decades now, Halley’s spare but steady penning of critical reflections on a variety of topics—mostly concerning mass communication, systemic control, and, more recently, digital networking—has been extremely effective in shaping and directing the reception of his work, imbuing his studio output with a savvy self-reflexivity. For some, bridging the distance between his unfalteringly schematic painting project and his ever-evolving philosophical discourse might seem an impossible stretch. But Halley’s studio production is perhaps less a reification of theory than a parallel investigation of associated visual conventions. Theory, then, hangs over his painting like a giant, extrapolating thought bubble, tethered to but independent from the studio. The two realms meet in the artist’s foundational obsession with geometry—its sociocultural deployment with respect to theory and its aesthetic potentiality with respect to practice. Regarding the latter, this show pulls out all the stops, upping the ante in Halley’s long-play game of anti-modernist, formalist offense. The searing, sweet-and-sour color scheme, the hyperindustrial materials, and the optical toxicity of the immersive atmospherics all run wonderfully afoul of the high modernist master code, messing with its precepts and, as with the artist’s theoretical ruminations, contesting its authority. 

Jeff Gibson