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James Hyde Interview with Daniel Gerwin

DANIEL GERWIN: Let’s start with the use of written language: letters and words. Is this the first time you’ve deployed language in this way, where you overtly use written language?

JAMES HYDE: Yes, it is. The closest I came before this was about 15 years ago, when I curated a show at Real Artways in Hartford CT, and AC Project Room in NYC. It was called the Fetish of Knowledge, and was organized around works that involved text and image. I curated that show because while I was interested in text in artworks, at that time I had no interest in having text in my own work.

After three or four years working with images of Stuart Davis’s paintings, where text does find its way into his imagery, it

had an impact on me. I’ve become very interested in how shape gets recognized as something- it becomes a signal, and how that changes the way you look at the shapes that compose text. In a way, when you recognize a letter it changes the way that shape looks.

AT, 2009, acrylic on archival digital print on stretched linen, 57 x 86 inches

DG: You can see the way shape-recognition is at play in the “at” painting, how it flips back and forth between two triangles and a rectangle, and the word “at”. The figure-ground relationship flips back and forth even as you look at it. But the idea of using language wasn’t in your mind at the beginning?

JH: No, at a certain point it became interesting as a way of responding to Davis’s variations on themes. Also, I’m putting shapes on top of Davis that have a quality of advertising, which was important to Davis.

DG: What about the choice of using these two-letter words or single letters?

JH: I didn’t want the language to have a lot of meaning or a lot of specific meaning. I want the words to be functional; they are all very basic, and a lot of them are prepositions. I wanted the language of the words to be something that leverages, rather than something that is something. You can look at my painting on the Davis details as words, or as a thin slab of applied paint. They move between recognition and experience. When you are really experiencing things you aren’t reading, but when you are reading, you are getting meaning, not experience.

DG: Let’s go back in time, in terms of your work, to those pieces that you did with mirrored surfaces, to which you affixed wooden handles. The reflection of the handle in the surface of the mirror would create relationships, and new things would happen. Is there a relationship between that activity and these Davis paintings?

HALO, 2003, chrome steel, wood,

49 x 22.5 x 7 in.

JH: Actually, it's a relevant connection. With most of those chrome panel pieces, what they look like is simply 2 x 4’s stuck on a reflective surface. Based on placement and orientation (and a bit of poetics), they become something else. They become a halo or a zero, or an X-- a kiss or an X-marks-the-spot. It’s the way material goes from being a raw mute thing to becoming a sign. It’s that moment of transformation that interests me both in these Davis pieces we’re showing, and in those chrome paintings.

DG: So how did you arrive at the decision to work on Stuart Davis?

JH: Davis was never a strong influence on me. Since I was a teenager, I have always worked in a material or minimalist mode of painting, but I’ve always so liked Davis whenever I’d see a piece of his in a museum. He’s kind of like an old friend, and with this group of work I wanted to spend some time working with one artist. I’d done paintings over details of Velasquez, Goya, Titian, some Matisse, and some oddball classic artists, like Alessandro Magnasco. But I wanted to work with a modernista 20th century artist.

With Davis, you really feel like he loved working. And the workman-like quality to Davis’s paintings made me feel that I could really stay with him for two or three years. That’s what I thought at the time, maybe even just one year! Now I’ve worked on this Stuart Davis Group for almost six years.

I also like the metaphor of musicality in formal abstract painting. I feel when there’s a musical quality, the abstractions really come alive-- become experiential. It’s kind of an old metaphor for abstract painting, but a metaphor I really like. And it’s a metaphor that Davis really liked. You could say he was the inventor of the jazz shape. And for me, with the Davis Group I was able to take up this metaphor-- a synesthesia of shape, color mutating to music and sound. I wanted to do this in a way that would be contemporary, by using photographic reproduction—use the Davis detail like a musical sample.

DG: Since this is a Philly show, and you and Davis are both from Philly, can you talk about what Philadelphia means to you, or what impact it might have had on you growing up?

JH: I’m in Brooklyn because I loved living in Philadelphia so much. Actually, recently I finally forgave my parents for moving the family to upstate NY when I was 10! I always liked the urban texture of Philly. I’ve lived in Brooklyn since moving to NY in the late 70s. Maybe that was my way of reconstituting living in Philadelphia?

DG: It’s funny you said that, because it’s a big reason I live in Philly: it reminds me of Brooklyn. Let’s talk about these sculptures. Can you talk about the timeline, or process of these sculptures – do they predate the paintings?

JH: No, they were actually simultaneous. I had planned to put these sculptures—or objects like them on the surface of the paintings.

Little B

DG: Like the handles on the mirrors?

JH: Yeah, but in a less denotative way—I thought they were going to be dimensional paintings, not word paintings. I tried to make this work for like a year and a half, and it was not happening. So I had all this stuff left over, both the flat enlarged details of the Davis paintings and the objects I had planned to put on them. So if you were to speak about it in Darwinian terms, that particular line bifurcated, and I ended up with a group of sculptures and a group of paintings, each developing in their own way.

DG: They certainly make a nice little ecosystem together.

JH: It was really fun to make sculpture. I don’t normally think about what it means to make sculpture, I’m always thinking about what it means to make a painting. So I thought, here’s a way of challenging myself and shifting perspective. With these sculptures, the question of the pedestal becomes important like the way the panel is important to me in painting. In a way, these are all classic sculptures, you can say each of them has a pedestal, or is itself a pedestal.

DG: Right, because your A is a pedestal.

JH: Yeah, the A will have plants on it.

DG: It’s really fascinating that you started with these sculptures on the paintings, but in the end you felt the paintings needed to be flat. Why didn’t the dimensional idea work for you?

JH: I think there’s an expectation that as artists we proceed through concept, and that there are rational reasons why things are good or not. That’s not the way I work; I have to have an intuition, and follow it as I evaluate whether it’s interesting, or if it makes me happy, or is doing something necessary or mysterious. In the end, it’s not about success or failure of the idea.

DG: It’s more a question of gut feeling?

JH: In this case the mix just wasn’t looking good. At that early stage, I wasn’t trying to put words on the photographic details, just objects on the surface. I wanted to alter the appearance of the Davis details with something more physical than paint.

DG: Were these objects not originally conceived as letters?

JH: No, with the first ones, I discovered they were letters after I made them!

DG: That’s great.

JH: What’s interesting about these paintings is how their materiality is weird. If you look at the painting I’ve done over the photo detail of the Davis painting (with a roller or with spray paint)—it’s a pretty thin layer. But on top of the photograph, the paint feels quite thick. I guess for me the realization was that actually putting something chunky on the Davis compromised the real magic that was possible. I discovered that you could take a really thin layer of paint and make it feel really-

DG: -like a mountain of texture?

JH: Well, like a material/physical experience. It’s almost like that thin layer of paint becomes sculptural against the super-slick flatness of the photograph, which is also funny because the enlarged photograph looks so hyper-textured.

DG: Not only do we go back and forth in recognizing words as opposed to geometric forms, but we also go back and forth between recognizing the photographic representation of texture versus the real texture of actual paint. There’s a lot of flipping.

JH: What I try to do with my work is to remind people and myself, that seeing is a really sophisticated structural act. And I try to make this experience of seeing pleasurable. To feel your vision.

Interview by Daniel Gerwin

Images Courtesy of the Artist

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