I first came across the paintings of Dennis Hayes about a year and a half ago at Thinkspace's Picks of the Harvest: Batch IV group show. I found his integration of rhythmic street-influenced geometric environments and scrappy, charismatic birds intriguing and unusual, so I made a point of keeping an eye on his work.
"Visions of Pure Intellect"
Dennis Hayes IV was born 31 years ago on a cold winter's day in Buffalo, NY. Growing up in a woodsy area on the outskirts of that blue-collar Rust Belt milieu, Dennis bucked his schoolteachers' expectations and parlayed his doodling obsession into a degree in sculpture from Alfred University. Soon afterward, he moved to Detroit to lend his sculpting skills to the auto industry. Seeking a personal outlet for his artistic notions, Dennis took up painting – first on the streets of Detroit and later in the more traditional fine-art arena.
Dennis works almost entirely with salvaged materials. As a result, the textures of his paintings are distressed, but that's a deliberate choice which produces some really interesting effects. While the pieced wood panels he creates exhibit evidence of burns, stains, old nail holes and the like, the painted surfaces are smooth, immaculate and intensely, precisely detailed. The result is something like Audubon painting graffiti on a 100-year-old barn... after taking mind-expanding drugs and contemplating some very edgy mathematical theories. There's a lot of thought behind the graphic elements in many of these pieces – Dennis says the geometry in his work is beginning to reach toward representing the mathematical theory of God.
"A Foot in Either Direction"
Dennis' latest show at Thinkspace Gallery, Against the Grain, wrapped up just a couple of weeks ago. While Dennis was in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to spend some time with him and learn more about his philosophy and methodology. After he returned to Detroit, we began working on this interview.
Erratic Phenomena: What got you started in art? When did you realize you were going to be an artist? Did any childhood experiences influence the direction you took in life?
Dennis Hayes: I'm not sure what got me started. Art is the way I feel most comfortable communicating my inner thoughts, scenarios or stories. So it happened pretty naturally. I did at one point realize that I wasn't communicating them – which happened to be in my mid-20s – so maybe that falls within to the category of realization, but at that point I had already been through art school.
As for childhood experiences that influenced me, I would have to say a few years of my education and extracurricular activities weighed in pretty heavy. I spent a few years being home-taught by my mother, and those years were important in my development. I wasn't bored with school, I was allowed to explore subjects I was interested in, and even though I did attend a school for my gym and art class, in a way all of my lessons were really gym and art class. That seemed to be the way that I learned, and my mother recognized that, so that was the way she set up our curriculum – if we were to learn about biology or something like that, it would maybe include a hike to the Griffis Sculpture Park in upstate New York to check out trees and plants, or a trip to the beach to explore what went on there. Learning by exploring has been such an influence, and I continue to use that same methodology today with learning and producing work.
"Red Wing Wetland Wanderer"
EP: I've read that you began painting birds after reading the Audubon Society publication The State of the Birds, which details the rather terrifying decline of common birds like chickadees and sparrows over the past 40 years due to intensive agriculture and suburban sprawl. You've explained to me that your birds are portraits of different types of people, which is evidenced by their subtly human eyes and attitudes. What are you hoping to achieve with your bird-portraits?
DH: Well, I strive to make them work on a few levels, depending on the viewer and the viewer's interest. They can simply be a one-liner for the viewer, like "Oohhh, it's a bird, isn't that nice."
However, my overall goal is to comment on our surroundings and how we fit into that scenario. What is our impact as an individual? Are we making the correct decisions? Is greed and ignorance leading us astray from living in harmony, as The State of the Birds suggests? If we are the reason for the decline in bird populations – which has a pretty solid case – then will we start to see a significant decline in human population when our man-made impact starts to creep up the food chain? I have hope that we can turn the ship around.
When I take the discarded and give it a second chance, I feel that we, as a species, can make smarter decisions and give ourselves a second chance.
"The Prey, the Pride, the Pedestal"
EP: Given your concern over the fate of birds, I wonder if you've ever considered painting an extinct bird, such as the passenger pigeon or the dodo?
DH: As far as I can remember, I have only painted birds that live within the states that I have inhabited myself, with the exception of the common bullfinch, which was for a show over in Germany. I felt it was appropriate to paint a bird that was native to that area, due to the fact it was an international show. As for the passenger pigeon or a dodo or any other extinct bird, I don't see it happening in the near future, but perhaps I may venture into it. I just feel that those species are going to be a bit more loaded, and I like my work to have a delicate and subtle approach that requires some time, investigation and exploration to find the deeper meaning.
"Guilty as Well"
EP: Your work seems to express a disillusionment and distress about mankind's interface with the natural environment. Your human characters are hollow and empty-eyed, embedded in a dismembered vision of nature - surrounded by segmented branches, backed by limbless forests and affixed to stumps. Could you elaborate on this theme and what it means to you?
DH: I believe all of us are disillusioned. There is a huge gap in our knowledge of what is actually occurring around us and what it is that we experience. It is nearly impossible to have the ability to calculate all that is happening around us in one instant. I see this dismembered vision of nature as an entanglement of what we know, what we think we know and what we do not. However we are still able to learn, see, and feel things from the dismembered visions that we experience. These constant learnings are what keeps the world turning for us and keeps it interesting.
"Transitional Diet of a Waxwing"
EP: You've mentioned that a lot of your work is about food and water. Could you tell me a little more about what makes that such an important topic for you?
DH: I could live without just about everything, but I cannot live without food and water. I personally feel that access to food and water is controlled by too few people – or better yet, corporations – that have too many ties to the government, a government which I do not have the greatest confidence in as of right now.
I also feel that people don't have an awareness of the amount of agricultural diversity that has died off over the past century, and how much of what is left is being tampered with at a molecular level. Also, there is the fact that within this heaping mess, we have consistently stripped the land of what was natural. Instead of living with the land, we have saturated it with chemical fertilizers that don't only affect the area that they're applied to, but all of the elements within that dynamic system that the area is intertwined with.
This interest has become a big part of who I am, largely due to the fact my wife is very involved on this front. After starting a family, you begin to realize how this aspect of life has been taken for granted by the masses, and that most of our society wouldn't have the slightest clue how to feed themselves if they had to, because of famine or another devastating circumstance.
EP: I know your process is quite time-consuming. You work almost exclusively with found materials - salvaged two-by-fours are cut to form the patchwork background of many of your pieces, and others are done on distressed surfaces like antique cabinet panels. The latex paints, tar, and a majority of the acrylics, spray paints and watercolors you use were all discarded by someone else, as well. When did you first decide to work with salvaged materials? Is there a philosophical motivation behind your choice of these materials, and how do you think it has shaped your evolution as an artist?
DH: I first started to use discarded materials out of a desire to give an abandoned object a second chance, instead of just being disposed of and forgotten. I feel there is an a excessive amount of potential in a lot of stuff that is just tossed. I like being resourceful and searching out the forgotten and making it into something that is desired again.
EP: Do you have any interesting scavenging stories?
DH: Going scavenging isn't all that interesting. Sometimes you find some cool stuff, but for the most part it's the people that you encounter while scavenging that make things interesting. However, I guess there was one time that I came across a dumpster full of skinned lamb's heads with the eyes and all still intact. It was quite the surprise, as it was a lonely dumpster with really nothing around but urban prairie in the middle of the Detroit wasteland.
EP: I won't ask about any recent street art activity, but I'd like to know a little bit about your early work under the name 7teen. Did getting up on the streets provide a kind of satisfaction that working in the studio didn't? Can you quantify why you had the urge to leave a mark on the face of the city?
DH: Right around the time I was getting the urge to start creating and get involved in making some work again, I vacationed to Italy and toured the northern half. I was amazed and totally inspired by the street artists of Italy, like Bo130, microbo, the Robots Inc crew, Sickboy, caught a few Pez pieces, etc. It was rad to see such a different style than what was going on back here in Detroit, with the exception of Fosik. However, I didn't catch his work until I returned to Detroit from Italy.
At that point, I was going out all the time and with a little bit of prep work, I was able to kill a few birds with one stone – party, paint and paste. So at the time, I wasn't really hitting the studio in any way. It was kind of a slow transition from the part of my life when I spent all of my time partying, to then passing my time via the studio. It was a great way to build back some confidence, because you would hear people talk about it, out and about.
EP: You used to paint scruffy, haloed characters who could be seen as homeless saints or holy fools. Now you frequently encompass your birds with a sort of geometric halo. Does this circle of energy that accompanies so many of your characters have meaning for you?
DH: It's funny that you mention that, because I have always seen them as the same characters for the most part. The halos do have meaning, just as they did in all of the paintings that have been done prior to my existence. I feel energy and auras are a very important part of our existence. It is something that transcends just about every religion and direction of spirituality. We all have energies that we exchange with people, be they positive or negative.
"To Kill a Mockingbird"
EP: Your earliest birds were much more in the realm of caricature, and over the past couple of years they have progressed to being quite realistic, with increasingly subtle indications of your portraiture-by-proxy. Was this a deliberate stylistic change, or did your technique evolve naturally as you continued to study and paint birds?
DH: I think it happened somewhat deliberately and somewhat naturally. As I kept painting birds, I felt that I needed to improve my skill set so it would allow me to grow as an artist. I was never really trained in painting, even though I went to art school. I studied mostly sculpture and video, which was great, but after I started painting, I began to study different painters and ended up really liking Charles Harper, James Audubon, Charles Sheeler, and Piet Mondrian.
What interests me about Harper and Mondrian was that they both started off with super-tight realism and ended up with these paintings that were so much simpler. Both recognized nature's complexity was nearly impossible to recreate and found beauty in simpler forms. So they way I see it, I needed to try to nail down some realism before I could take my work to the next step, as they did. Also, I feel the subject matter and the comments that my paintings were trying to convey got more serious as I progressed, and I think they began to tighten or be executed better because they needed to be more realistic to be taken more seriously, and not just as one-liners.
"Fisher for Sure"
EP: You're also an admirer of the ornate nature studies of Romantic philosopher-biologist Ernst Haeckel and the allegorical naturalist illustrations of Walton Ford. Among current artists, I know you appreciate Tiffany Bozic, Mars-1 and Josh Keyes, and you mentioned that Dalek's technique influenced the way you lay down latex in multiple thin coats to achieve a smooth painted surface for your geometric designs. Are there any other artists or art movements you find particularly compelling right now?
DH: Most of them you have already mentioned, but I also really look up to Robert Hardgrave and what he is doing. But mostly I have been starting to look for inspiration elsewhere – mathematics, science, theology, politics, and conspiracy theory.
EP: What else inspires you - in literature, music, philosophy, metaphysics?
DH: Whoa, there is a firing squad of questions. Well here it goes – right now in literature I am reading Symmetry - A Journey Into the Patterns of Nature by Marcus Du Sautoy, A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe by Michael Schneider, I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert, and I just finished Ron Paul's book The Revolution (A Manifesto). I also read about one Wikipedia entry a day.
As for music, I have been listening to a wide array, per usual. Right now Dylan, Zappa, Janis, and Captain Beefheart, however I have begun my quest to start to have some knowledge into classical music, so some Bach, Antonin Dvorák and Arnold Schoenberg, for example. So I'm just getting my toes wet there, but it's something I've always wanted to have some knowledge in. Partly through the fact that I have started to become extremely interested in mathematics and geometry, and classical music is structured through mathematics, so it's almost like I am studying while I am listening to the music.
Geometry and its attributes in spirituality, nature and aesthetics are weighing in pretty heavy as inspiration, but it's crazy how often it is linked to so many other subjects and important individuals throughout our history. It has led to interest in Tesla, Aristotle, Plato, Poincaré and subjects like chaos theory, astrology, genetics, and even crop circles. (I guess that falls into the whole conspiracy theory inspiration.)
EP: You told me you'd been learning a lot recently from watching your four-year-old daughter paint. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
DH: Well, she is free to do whatever she wants. It's pure expression, and that freedom invites happy accidents. It's the energy and happy accidents that she creates that I draw inspiration from – color combos, textures and techniques. She's got it going on.
EP: Is there any significance to your depiction of stitching in most of your paintings?
DH: Think of traditional quilting. It's the thread that ties it all together. It's to let you know there is a side that you see and a side you don't. It lets you know that it's handmade and of heirloom quality.
"Radial Spectrum of Influences"
EP: Could you describe for me the symbolism behind your recent painting "Radial Spectrum of Influences?"
DH: Absolutely. To start, let's begin with the subject. Pigeons, to me, symbolize the working-class city dwellers that are good people, have big hearts and a sense of community, but are perhaps still a little bit outcast. Even though they might be downtrodden, possibly due to lack of wealth or lack of health, they still find happiness.
Then you bring the geometry into play, which is where the title is drawn from. The radial pattern here symbolizes the energies, actions, thoughts, memories and auras that permeate into the space around an individual or object. But that pattern is a two-way street, seeing that all of the objects around the subject (in this case the pigeon-person) are throwing out their energies and so on back at the individual, which builds upon his character by giving him experience.
It's a representation of something that is consistently happening at every moment that one exists. These are the simple things that we take for granted by just living our lives as we do. We somehow fail to see the entire picture, and perhaps that is what the other 85% of our brain is supposed to be doing, but it's too busy sleeping in.
"Spray It, Don't Say It"
EP: Favorite esoteric or archaic word?
EP: What are you excited about right now? Plans for the future?
DH: I am excited about seeing my family soon. My brother is getting married in a few weeks, which I am super stoked about, and I am looking forward to seeing my kin and spending some time in Buffalo. My plan for the future is just to continue plugging away, attempting to educate myself so I can continue to grow as an individual and as an artist. I have a few group shows lined up through to the spring and am in the process of lining up some things up for later next year or early 2010, as I promised the wife a summer free of a deadline.
EP: Thanks, Dennis!
Dennis Hayes has some beautiful pieces available at Thinkspace Gallery, and he is currently working on some paintings for Infinity Squared, a Distinction Gallery group show curated by Kelly Vivanco which opens on December 13th. If you'd like to read more about Dennis and his work, there's another recent interview with him at Sour Harvest.
The Modernist nature painter Charley Harper spent most of his life painting birds in a style he called "minimal realism." Much like Dennis Hayes, Harper drew inspiration from such diverse sources as Audubon, Einsteinian physics and Cubism.
Harper said, "When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don't see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures. I regard the picture as an ecosystem in which all the elements are interrelated, interdependent, perfectly balanced, without trimming or utilized parts, and herein lies the lure of painting – in a world of chaos, the picture is one small rectangle in which the artist can create an ordered universe."