March 2016

James Hyde is based in Brooklyn, New York. He has two enormous, beautifully lit studios that are a stones throw from each other. His current body of work explores the juxtaposition of painting with photography. While he maintains an old school charm, he has a refreshing perspective on the importance of challenging one’s perceptions in regards to his work. 

1. Your work fuses photography and painting –– sometimes seeing the images online you think you get a feel for the work, but you don’t see the tactile elements that go into it, the movement that takes place. How do you think the internet is influencing the way people look at your art? 

The internet connects us to enormous wells of information but when it comes to visuality, it often exchanges access and information for experience. My recent paintings, particularly the detailed western panoramas are experienced differently in reproduction than in life.  On screen the photographic parts of these paintings appear surfaceless and the geometric shapes look like a design graphic. I've always been interested in the materiality of paint. In contrast to the thinness of the photograph, the hand painted abstract shapes have a specific tactile density—a physicality that can only be experienced in person.  

2. How do you see your work recontextualizing/decontextualizing the way we look at traditional landscape and figures in both painting and photography?

I like the way the photos that I begin these paintings with relate to the landscapes of the American west of Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Frederick Sommer.  But how I work with these photos is more like the way Robert Smithson engages landscape as a site more than as a picture.  These photos are not an end in them selves. They form a place that allows me to set to work painting.  As important as how the photos look are some of the incidentals surrounding the moments when I took the photos.  Little of that context can be seen in the resulting photo but memory of these incidents informs how I paint on the surface of the photograph.  

I don’t think of these paintings as essentially landscapes or figurative –– I think of them as abstract paintings. Photography allows me to get my abstractions out of the confines of the generalized white cube and into the specific architecture of a photograph.  It allows me to develop abstract paintings that look out on to the world.

3. Your work is much more than a painting on top of a photo. There is a symbiosis that occurs between both paint and photograph. How do you personally describe the photo in the context of the painting?

For me, photography takes on the role that drawing plays in more traditional types of painting.  I begin painting with the photo, but I don’t follow the visual cues of the photo as much as letting it propose the problems or possibilities that I explore in the painting.  In addition, photography is the architecture— the presentational frame –– where I can present painting.

4. In a recent interview for your exhibition entitled Ground, you described the “eyes as emotional muscles,” how do you see your work strengthening these muscles?

On the most basic level, looking at painting is an exercise for the eyes that is integral to thinking and feeling.  In the studio I contend with lots of questions— large to intimate. Such as what are the pictorial relationships between the materiality of painting and photography, how does the thickness of the paint relate to the surface of a photographic print, or simply how does this color green fit with that shade of black? I try to make paintings that are challenging— that push these lines of questioning and looking.  

5. What is the significance of adding circles cut into some of the work and/or stacking painted blocks on top of them? They seem like subtle references to your earlier very physical paintings that are thick and protrude from the wall?

Geometrical covering, stacking, coloring, cutting, flattening and fattening have always figured in my paintings. These processes are at the heart of what it means for me to make an abstract painting.

After 2003, I became interested in applying these material habits and processes to a context that moves between the physicality of painting and the virtuality of photography. My paintings have always had a diverse set of appearances.  I’ve never thought abstract painting should be about developing a look or mining a style. While I don’t work within a style, I do have a consistent set of ways of working. The recent paintings don't as much refer to these earlier paintings as they continue and update my painterly habits. 

6. New Mexico, Pyramid Lake (just north of LA), and other locales that you have ventured to –– can you talk about why there is an added level of intimacy involved in these paintings?

When you take a picture there is so much that is invisible –– there’s so much around the camera that can’t come in.  And, as I said before, much of what I respond to when I begin to work on a particular photo isn’t visually available. In my case, much of this invisibility is secret. Perhaps it's these secrets that can give you that sense of intimacy?  I’m never sure if that translates to others but it's part of what compels me to paint.

7. What are some of the discoveries you are making by using blown up portions of some of your favorite painters’ work as canvases?

It’s remarkable what you can see by blowing up a detail of a painting.  The camera catches things that the naked eye doesn't notice –– the mineral content of the paint, the weave of the canvas, the brushwork that’s used to construct a form –– even little bits of lint!  

In 2004 I started taking details of paintings that I liked –– not necessarily my favorite painter’s works, but paintings that had something of interest, which could only be seen up close.  Standard reproductions capture the overall picture but not the material specifics –– I took those photos to remember those details.  When I had the photographic details enlarged to billboard size and began painting on them it was like working in a whole new painting world.  Part of what grounds painting in the physical present is the actual size of the marks.  And in distinction, the ability to enlarge or shrink the size of the photographic print seemingly infinitely gives photography a fantastical quality.  Both are of great interest to me.

8. You have two gorgeous studios. How do you see each of them shaping your work in different ways?

I’m very lucky that way!  One studio is behind our house in Carroll Gardens.  To enter you have to go through the yard with its viburnum, fig trees and compost pile.  It has something of a secret garden feel to it.  I tend to do smaller works that push improvisation there.  The other studio is a few blocks away in an industrial building on the Gowanus canal.  The studio opens to a yard on the banks of the canal with a broad view of the elevated F and G lines and the Hamilton Expressway.  There was a fine view of the Kentile sign before it was demolished.  The Gowanus studio is where my panels and stretchers are made and where I make larger works including the billboard size Stuart Davis paintings I showed at Rutgers and at Pierogi’s Boiler several years ago.  I didn’t realize it at the time –– but of course the billboard paintings were influenced by the industrial landscape outside my door!  This view from the studio has a long distant horizon, rare in NYC.  I’m pretty sure it fed into the long views that are the basis for my western panoramic paintings.  

I have a theory that working in a studio changes –– and helps— the brain behind the artworks.  The unfinished works, the leftovers, the pots of paint and brushes, the people and physical circulation around the studio –– even what’s outside, these all figure in subtle and not so subtle ways to extend the intelligence of making of paintings.  I’ve come to appreciate my studio is a lot smarter than me.

9. You had a busy 2015 with four shows. What are your most excited to explore in the studio in the coming months?

After all that hard work in the studio what I’m most excited about is…. more hard work in the studio!  I'm continuing the western panoramas; sometimes at full size, sometimes cropped to small sections.  In the Gowanus studio I had a 7' x 10’ vinyl billboard print of a detail of a work by the 18th Century Genovese painter, Alessandro Magnasco.  It’s a dark detail of a dark painting.   I worked on it intermittently over seven months without much of a plan and it got worse and worse.  Finally I rolled it up and stuffed it in a corner.  Around New Years I pulled it out to see what could be done.  I covered it with layers of different matte and gloss varnishes and dark pigments and just about when I was ready to toss it, it snapped into being.  All the different areas reflect and absorb light differently— and in a few places you can see through to the enlargement of Magnasco’s vivid brushwork.  It doesn’t look much like anything I’ve done before so of course I’m very excited about it!  I just ordered three more large details from the billboard company and I’ve started on one of them.

At the Carroll Gardens studio I’ve been working on what might be described as portraits of possible public sculptures.  These are all smaller than two foot square and entail photos of public sculptures mounted on canvas board.  I give myself a lot of latitude improvising the painting on top. The paintings come out very differently –– some are gooey and gestural; some are bright and geometric; some have thick material surfaces and some are relatively flat.  There’s something a little sad about these “sculptures” but they’re also quite optimistic.