Nancy Haynes, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, 2022, oil on canvas, 9 × 12". From the series “library,” 2017–.

Nancy Haynes, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, 2022, oil on canvas, 9 × 12". From the series “library,” 2017–.

Nancy Haynes

Some paintings are suffused with the time involved in making them. These pictures speak of their own careful and gradual emergence, like ice slowly forming on a lake at the onset of winter. Like a frozen lake, where one simply senses the ice’s thickness even though only its top layer is visible, such paintings also make the viewer implicitly aware of their durational development. Nancy Haynes is a painter clearly attuned to such a temporal consciousness, with a sensibility that also informs her affinity for writing, even though her works do not suggest any hint of narrative.

Her exhibition “a madeleine dipped in ink” consisted of twenty-one small paintings in oil on canvas or linen that were evenly and elegantly arranged across the gallery. Painted between 2017 and 2022, they belonged to her ongoing series “library.” The surface of each painting is built through careful application of layers of black and white hues, some tinged a yellowish green. These exquisite surfaces are generally smooth and refined at the center, opening up to more conspicuous and unruly brushstrokes at their edges. Each painting is titled after a writer of significance to the artist, who here wrote the corresponding name directly on the wall below each piece.

Hannah Arendt, 2017, for instance, is almost completely white and luminous on the left side but gradually shifts to pale gray toward the center, where the paint application is as smooth as porcelain. The mood changes abruptly at the right side, where we see wilder brushstrokes of dark gray in all directions. Narrow horizontal marks at the top and bottom edges of the painting frame the subtle drama. D. H. Lawrence, 2022, is also a near monochrome, as its pristine and uniformly applied paint gradates from a pale gray tinted with lime to a slightly darker tone. In Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, 2022, on the other hand, Haynes’s short, vigorous brushstrokes accentuate the strong contrast between a vibrant near black and an almost white, both tinted with green.

What is the relationship between these refined and opaque abstract compositions and the writers after whom they are named? In his exhibition text, Miciah Hussey emphasizes that the paintings are not portraits, but evoke instead the feelings that the authors convey. Haynes’s approach to the written word has something in common with that of composers: Inherently abstract, music inspired by literature offers not so much the content of its supposed subject but the feeling and formless impressions a book or poem triggered in the composer. Take, for example, Tchaikovsky’s 1876 orchestral piece, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by the tragic tale of a noblewoman from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320). The work is explicitly connected to its source material only by its title, and the story cannot be directly parsed from the music. Likewise, it is impossible to know directly from one of her paintings which writer Haynes had in mind when making it. What one experiences instead are the emotional states a writer induced within Haynes.

In a painting, the atmosphere, emotions, and thoughts stirred by the writing (which in a musical composition, by contrast, unfold over time) are condensed into a surface that the viewer experiences instantaneously. While the particular way in which Haynes paints makes a sense of temporality palpable, at the same time all the information a painting contains is immediately present. Any implication of time, as in Hannah Arendt, which suggests a scanning movement not unlike reading, is generated by the beholder’s processing of all the picture’s contents, which arrive simultaneously. Haynes’s paintings result from extreme compression, both of her experience of reading and of the duration of their own making. Much like diamonds, which are created from carbon subjected to extreme heat and pressure, her paintings are dense, and they sparkle.