David Hayes Sculptures, Lester Johnson Paintings

Joseloff Gallery, University of Hartford
April 4 ­ May 4, 1984


Exhibitions are especially rewarding when they are as carefully considered and conceived as we find in this stimulating blend of sculpture by David Hayes and paintings by Lester Johnson. Selections reveal both using dark forms to emphasize a unique approach toward contour, to challenge a viewer's expectations of volume and depth, and also to develop a mood that is rather pensive, weighty, and profound. In the parallels between painting and sculpture we find form reinforces form, and the experience heightens sensitivity in general.

There are qualities in these Lester Johnson paintings from the early sixties that now seem visionary. It is almost uncanny to observe how his dehumanized figures are prophetic of attitudes that have developed amidst the proliferation of advanced technology and information about apace travel. Powerful as his bald, monotone, scratchy and sparingly described images were when they first appeared, they are even more so now. An unusual phenomenon in art. Indeed, this opportunity to re-experience the work should prove important in strengthening judgements of the artist's significance.

The focus, in the sixties, was on Johnson's achievements in linking an abstract expressionist handling of fluid, running, dispersing paint with comments on the human condition. He thoroughly understood how the act of applying pigment could be a valid extension of an inner state of consciousness, and this brought a kind of calligraphic energy into the work. Now the implications of the figures seem to have expanded, but without diminishing the personal, vibrant tensions crated by ribbons of slithering paint. In fact, the crusty surfaces are sensed as an emotional fabric that dramatically reinforces content.

Part of the impact comes from the way the palette is restricted to a haunting monotone. Features appear to be etched out of expressive space ­ space that alternately suggests a void, infinity or the unknown. In the deliberate sparseness here, marks describing human details are also paint-drag gestures enlivening the total surface.

The silhouette effect that results from these methods contributes to the feeling of dehumanization ­ as does the pattern of repeated, non-individualized heads in some examples, and the tendency to occasionally see geometricized figures as objects. Yet in another sense they appear to be monumentalized because of the way they swell, fill the entire canvass, and extend beyond the pictorial frame. Enlargements, surprises in scale, the look of compression and crowding ­ of pushing against artificial space ­ give images a jarring character. Their force can be riveting.

In quite a different manner, the selections from David Hayes' "Vertical Motif" series deals, too, with grand, simplified, but very dynamic curves. Because of the positioning of the pieces, viewers are likely to discover themselves responding immediately to the sculptor's larger, three-dimensional, environmental interests in just how space is to be broken up. The "Vertical Motifs," which Hayes began in 1977, provide opportunities for developing fairly close, interrelated arrangements that create special harmonies of form and shape.

It is a kind of sculpture that is expansive, filling the senses with more than might seem possible. There are ideas present here concerning nature, biomorphism, and the totemic (the artist has referred to the sculptures as "sentinels,") as well as aesthetic effects that depend on varied light reflections flowing over differently angled surfaces. A heavy gauge industrial steel plate is the material used, and the cut forms have been painted black, which tends to reinforce the boldness of the contours.

Ink and gouache drawings that served as a preliminary step for these conceptions have been included in the exhibition, and they make it quite clear that the bursting, thrusting energy of trees, plants, and flowing forms ­ indeed all of nature ­ is an inspirational source for the quality of the energy one feels here. It is the vital, continuously evolving energy associated with growth that is particularly apparent. The intentional ambiguity between the soft pliability of nature's growth and the firmness of steel is a major aspect of the impact. The effect can be both intriguing and engaging. There is also a grace, elegance, and undulating quality that is readily linked with nature.

It is quite clear, too, that Hayes is involved with variations on organic shapes. He distills, captures an essence, then crystallizes this into design. Resolutions that follow are personal statements about expressive form. One especially admires his talent for distributing physical and illusory weight to convey a particular spirit that he feels should be part of the content.

The exhibition highlights innovations by both artists, and seems especially suited to the context of a university setting. Here, hopefully, the meaning of the work and the successful careers will be translated into lasting, valuable inspiration.

Phyllis Braff