Something to Glow On


Barbara MacAdam

Her storefront studio in the industrial Red Hook section of Brooklyn is Nancy Haynes's pride and agony. Despite floods and invasions of starlings, squirrels, and other natural and unnatural predators, Haynes has managed to keep the place patched together and very tidy. Unfussy and workmanlike but for a large, slouchy white sofa the studio opens onto an effusive, intensely worked garden.

"It bothers me when people say my work is inspired by nature. It's not," Haynes insists of her minimalist-informed abstract paintings, often in shades of green and yellow. Unless what they detect, Haynes laughs, is the influence of the garden's "carnage in the lower realms," that teeming, fertile society of worms and insects.

For 18 years, Haynes has been interjecting into her paintings a sulfurous Greenish gray pigment, which must be charged by light and then viewed in the dark. As its glow fades, shapes change. Such "fugitive" paint presents a paradox: a presence that is also an absence. It "forces you to fill in what you can't see," Haynes explains. "It allows for elusive memory you can know it's there, but you can't situate it precisely."

Haynes cloaks herself, like her paintings, in the subtlety of what seems to be uncompromising minimalism. Dressed in jeans and shirttails with a cashmere sweater, the 50-year-old artist exudes an air of fastidious bohemianism. This has been a good year for her. She has shown in Europe and the United States, at venues ranging from Lawing Gallery in Houston, Texas, with which she's had a long association to Hubert Winter's galleries in Vienna and Berlin and Galerie von Bartha, in Basel. And she was in a major show at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, and another at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and has recently signed on with New York's Stark Gallery.

All of this activity is reflected in the ever-changing configuration of her studio. Neatly stacked racks hold paintings that run from forthright small geometric diptychs of the late 1960s to large canvases with rows of angled gestures. On the floor are cans filled with "brushes" Haynes designed for her recent works: "I make a handle to accommodate sponges," she says. Using sponges enables her to repeat a shape, so the paint mimics a building block, giving some of her works an architectural aspect and creating what she calls “..consistency with anomalies."

Haynes is a builder: she worked on her studio, the closets, the library, everything. Likewise. her paintings and prints are constructs, palimpsests, built layer upon layer and often based on a grid. But, But, explains, "now I'm using a different sort of architecture" -one in which "I want to fracture these horizontal bands." And this leads her to cubism. She builds the grid but then wants to dissolve it. "I always turn to cubism when I'm in a comer," she says. "I use it as a foundation in certain works, or sometimes it's just a way of referring to other paintings." Whichever, it shows up in the play of surfaces, the advancing and retreating of color and form, the idea of the inside sharing the surface with the outside, all conjuring the effects if not the look of Cezanne.

She is also exploring the surface itself, in paintings inspired by Seurat's drawings. In these, Haynes makes marks using a paint-laden foam brush and the weight of her hand-without gesture or nuance. Applied to a heavy linen surface, she feels, the painting Seurat’s textures.

Other works are stimulated by books, including diptychs that suggest open texts, with horigestures hinting at reading from left to right and, of course, between the lines. The glow-in-the-dark paint makes the idea of text and subtext quite literal, as the latter rises to the surface, briefly illuminating it, and then retreats, waiting to be recharged.

Film and language also inform Haynes's paintings, though she rigorously insists on the non- referentiality of her art. In 1987 Haynes be-an making what she calls "languages paintings."

"The first ones were Circumlocution and Fiction within Fiction. They were paintings that seemed specific to language---in some ways talking to the many questions of art and other artists." She did an editioned silk screen, for example, after her painting, Endgame, named for Beckett's play. But she also explains that language refers to her visual dialogues with other painters. "For instance, once when I was using the diptych, I was thinking about Jonathan Lasker's diagrams and Jasper Johns's crosshatch work." Many titles refer to painting's communicative act - titles like Referent, Discourse, and Body Language.

The painting Object of Negation (1995) veers away from language It describes a new kind of light in art, one that critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe refers to, when describing her work, as video's thin brightness." The picture is a string of images, like an empty filmstrip. It suggests a narrative line. At the same time. “it's about negative images - what’s not there," she explains.

Some of her best-known works from the 1980s have the tone and attitude of film noir — cool, seductive, and threatening. Horizontal streaks of black paint over light tones on half the canvas evoke the sense of venetian blinds, while vertical veils of paint on the other have a more ominous look.

Haynes's apparently rigid shell of nonrepresentation does admit occasional cracks — of emotion and sometimes, almost, figure. "In the personal painting,”she explains, '*everything gets contradicted." After her mother died, she did a painting titled Eulogy, which was stolen out of a gallery. The painting had, she recalls, an anomalous "bluish elliptical area." It was a very emotional work. Then, last year, she made Primo Levi in Turin, with an almost solid black center.

Haynes was born in Connecticut. "We were supposed to be born at West Point," she says of herself and her twin brother, "but we were early." Since their father was in the military, the family-four brothers and a sister-moved frequently and spent two years in Istanbul. "There were scorpions everywhere," she recounts, and she can still remember magnolias and the wild boar her father killed. But most of all, she thinks about the evening light on the Bosporus and archeological sites.

It was more than place that made her decide to become an artist. When she was young and living in Marin County, California she used to visit an elderly artist named Elsie Pomeroy. "We had a painting by her-of water lilies-which I still have. I realized then that painters could be female, and that they could have a wonderful place to work, a studio, and it could be a hideout. I knew at that moment I was going to paint."

First, though, Haynes tried college, twice, in Colorado, and even took a few art classes-including life drawing and sculpture She remembers making a sculpture in college and how the instructor, in an effort to prove that the welding wasn't strong enough, dropped it on the floor. It broke. Haynes left.

After arriving in New York in 1967, Haynes found a seventh-floor walkup in SoHo, held a succession of odd jobs, and traveled. Her first studio-after the "kitchen table"-was a room in a friend's loft. She became a librarian at the school her daughters Kirsten and Elise, attended, and later an adjunct professor of painting at Hunter College, with brief stints as a visiting artist at Harvard and the Ringling School of Art and Design. She lives with her husband, sculptor Michael Metz, and reads widely, everything from Practical Pruning to lots of fiction.

Haynes had her first solo show in 1981 at the David Bellman Gallery in Toronto, followed by exhibitions in New York at John Gibson and John Good, which represented her from 1987 until its closing in 1994. There have been shows in museums and public spaces, including a Project Room at P.S. 1, in Long Island City, in 1984: the Long Beach Museum of Art, in 1991-92): the Chrysler Museum of Art, in 1992; and the Gemeentemuseum, in The Hague, in 1985. Her work sells in the range of $600 to $3,500 for monotypes and $6,000 to $22,000 for recent paintings.

Lately, Haynes has been using more color. "In these new paintings," she says. "I use two kinds of light; the paint is no longer only fugitive, although the effect can be similar. I'm complicating the light," she explains, “the way I do with glow-in-the-dark paints." So now rusty reds and rich bright blues play against a grayish ground with greenish yellow overtones. The effect of the almost tawdry colors on the strange neutral tone is a sexy one.

In fact, Seismographic Negligee and Study for Rashomon, two recent paintings, "feel undressed." Haynes says. "It's supposed to be the painting undressed, the skeleton of the painting." In Rashomon, a diptych, she notes how "the position and brush strokes are based on a little Mondrian watercolor." The tones are reminiscent of Barnett Newman, and, she says, the movement is '*like Boccioni,"

Turning away from the canvases, Haynes looks out the studio door, and remarks on how wonderful summer is "when the grape arbor fills in and casts a delicate, eerie, green aura on the studio walls."

Barbara MacAdam is senior editor of ARTnews


© Nancy Haynes 2011