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Peter Halley


Took the 1 downtown, found his studio complex and waited for an elevator. An octagonal metal form hung like a disco ball in the lobby, with a welcome message scrolling across a wrap-around digital screen. The letter-board directory lists nearly a hundred artists, dealers, and galleries by floor and room number. whoosh.

ayyy ah- yaaa ya … what sounds like Bollywood pop swirls around the elevator chamber, and a thick, flowery scent hangs in the air. The elevator attendant stoops over an open panel of electrical wiring, and inquires politely,

 

which floor.

 

Full boat today, Dev, comments a man in tortoise-shell glasses and a V-neck navy-blue cashmere. His brown curls swoop elegantly across his forehead, and he skooches into the back corner as 7 more artists and visitors cram in, one man stashing an electric scooter just inside the doors as they close.

H A L L E Y,

says the red metal door.

I step across the threshold into a cool, natural-light-drenched studio that overlooks the Yards. (yes, always a headache, comments Peter on the construction noise). Halley’s works, leaned against the far wall on concrete blocks, emanate Day-Glo luminosity and charismatic presence. A boy in red coveralls rolls a layer of acrylic paint onto a maquette, and a paint-spattered girl with Zoey-Deschanel-bangs ushers me through the door, then resumes her place at a table in the front foyer. Peter gestures toward a table by the window, offering refreshment; two small bowls hold walnuts and almonds, and a water cooler catches the late afternoon light.

Having seen Halley’s most recent show at Greene Naftali, I’m newly familiar with both his seriousness as a painter, and his pointed, rebellious sense of wit. (His recent show featured acrylic paintings of his iconic cell forms with conduits, as well as an installation of fluorescent chartreuse wall paint on the gallery walls and central gallery column. It also included a recording of Mexican music, played intermittently on the gallery speakers).

The overall feeling of the show was ominous and disjointed. The fluoresence of his chartreuse carries neither the soothing quality of the green of Nature, nor the pleasing luminosity of the yellow of the Sun. The aesthetic of the music had no corollary in the aesthetic of the paintings, and the fun-house mirror sculpture further distorted reality.

Peter Halley’s use of abstraction is referential to forms- in this show, forms that are rooted in Fouccaultian theory in a way that expressed the dystopian without gloominess. In his early work, he created abstractions of colored squares with figurative titles such as ‘tree’, or ‘mosque’. These abstractions drew on specific motifs from found visual imagery such as Hopi Kochinas or Islamic art, yet presented them as “Western-looking” abstractions- also clearly referential to Halley’s research at the time into Fouccault and post-colonial anthropology, and what he described as the “realization that no matter what I was looking at, I’d be seeing it through the lens of my own culture.” Halley said that this stripped him of the “romanticism” that he’d previously had.

I ask, “you cite your loss of a romantic ideal, but I see optimism here- a belief in painting, of color- what do you think about Beauty in art? Do you pursue it as an ideal?”

He says that sure, there is plenty of 18th-century theory into Beauty, but there are so many different ways of defining beauty. It can be what is expressive, what is formally enticing, what is colorful- a philosophy of beauty isn’t what drives him as an artist, doesn’t inform his work the way his other interests- color, cultural anthropology, responding to the ideals of Modernism- do.

commentary on the modernism of the buildings he installs in
Halley leads us toward the back office. The studio is entirely windowed on the east wall, and I note the airy, pleasant quality of the space. It feels very good here. The back office is lined with walls of books, and large canvases wrapped in brown paper and leaned against the shelves. On the central table, numerous architectural models are clustered- a hodge-podge of white foamcore board glued into right angles. I grew up in Midtown, he says, right by this building. (He gestures toward the model of the modernist building where his upcoming show is going to be installed). So this project feels kind of close to home that way.

“My work is postmodern in that it refutes the idealism of modernism with a sense of humor, and I’m often installing works in these modernist buildings. Since there are no walls, you have to install your own to hang paintings. This lobby is basically a glass box, you can see into it from across the street. So when you install paintings you need to think about how it’s going to look from the interior and the exterior. (He gestures toward the model). It’s funny, this building cantilevers way out here, then back in, then cantilevers out- some of these young architects early in their career put a lot of thought into some small aspects of the building, and there’s a lot to discover here. There's a Mies Van der Rohe around the corner.
 
looking at the canvases
Halley’s raised conduit forms look glued-on, but they’re actually layered on- with hundreds of coats of acrylic paint, brushed on between tape-lines. He invites us to touch the surface of the canvas, but I immediately do a double-take, and there is no way I’m touching this beautiful surface with my hands that have been all over the subway and are probably crawling with urban cooties. Sometimes as an artist when there are visitors in your studio, it’s easy to casually offer that they touch or move things, or make offers that you later vastly regret after they’ve spilled coffee on your sketches, or drag canvases in ways that are retrospectively excruciating.

Anyway, the texture was remarkable, and that process feels symbolic; “After I came back to New York, I was influenced by the urban landscape. The way you have these highly specific pathways that you have to stick to- sidewalks, powerlines, superhighways, subway lines… ”

The square forms in his paintings reference architectural layouts, and the conduit forms, these defined pathways of society.

How do you feel about the term formalism? he asks. Is that still a word that carries some stigma? Formal?

I say, I don’t feel that it carries a stigma- but that I don’t feel his work is wholly formal, in that its clearly referential. The meaning of the work isn’t fully in its form. The viewer requires context on his research and his external referents in order for the work to communicate itself completely- though less in the recent paintings than in his early representationally-named compositions of squares.

“It’s like Mondrian versus a painter like Morris Louis- you could call them both formal but Mondrian is dealing with a set of external referents in a way that Morris Louis isn’t.”

Halley nods.

They’re not completely non-referential. The abstract form is covered in the brush-on popcorn texture and references architecture.

“So much of when you call an artist a genius, like Van Gogh, that’s about the texture,” he says. “I like did a Warhol and was like, why don’t I just buy my texture,” he laughs, gesturing toward the can of roll-on popcorn texture.

Do you ever use oils?

“I only use acrylics. When I was starting out, acrylics were becoming widely available and vastly improving in quality. Even as a teenager I was uncomfortable with the solvents and things involved in oil painting. I mean you can get around that- I’m not saying nobody should use oils, some artists yes- but I only use acrylics.”

rift with Koons
Halley is often grouped with artists like Koons, because of the milieu from which he emerged in the 1980’s. Halley and Koons used to be friendly.

“We had a falling out,” says Peter. Koons was getting into the money, and the persona of the artist in a way that Halley couldn’t endorse.

Halley was closely intellectually involved with the scene around October magazine, where Rosalind Krass was working at the time. “There was this Marxist value set with the performance artists in the 70’s and with Conceptualism, to move away from the object,” he points out, but also cedes that the objectness of his work is a central aspect of its being. He finds that his work “looks better on screen than in print”, but that his paintings are ideally experienced as a physical object in space. I note that the textural elements and the scale of his works, in tandem with the physiological experience of looking straight at a single grouping of that much fluorescent chartreuse, are crucial to the experience.

One of the reasons I asked you about oil paint, is because I was studying structural coloration for a while back when I’d gotten into making digital paintings- I’d realized that with digital painting, you’re working in this RGB-CMYK color profile, and in digital painting you can only have one color per pixel- you can’t do any type of blending. There’s no depth of color. In the structural coloration of nature, in the morphos butterfly wing, in oil paint- you have color suspended in a clear medium through which light passes, like a jewel, giving it a depth of coloration and luminosity that digital painting can never have.”

 

Anyway, back to Koons, Koons’ persona was arguably crafted to exemplify a sort of parodical critical detachment, to exist as a mirror of the system, but now that persona is Koons. Halley is uncomfortable with it.

 

They’re detaching from the seriousness of speech, and it’s a form of ego loss, or detachment from the seriousness of the ego and morality, and the seriousness of your relationship to other people, that I find very frightening, I say. I point out that Parker Ito's work also has that quality which I believe to be a flaw.

 

How do you feel about social media, and this invention of privacy? Halley asks. I read a book recently about the development of the idea of privacy, and the rise of shame- which is very Freudian, that there are some aspects of ourselves that we must hide, because they are different from other people, or deviant—“

I say that I could happily share every moment of my life with the world. I think it's comforting. It keeps me connected to the people I care about who may be far away. I see utopian possibilities in the internet.
I think it’s possible for someone to grasp the philosophical underpinnings of an artist’s practice through reading their statements, and seeing images of the work. You may not be fully able to experience the work, but you can apprehend the ideologies, and to me that is utopian- that everyone can have access to that.


Halley acknowledges that he appreciates Instagram and enjoys keeping up with artists, etc. through the platform.

I used to work in the SEO optimization industry. The industry basically degrades the human language by redesigning internet content to fit Google’s search algorithm- to make it less appealing to human beings and more legible to robots. So if you upload the greatest poetry of our time to the internet, it would be less “valuable” (air quotes), than someone who types the phrase “cheap real estate in Palo Alto” five thousand times,” I explain. Like Beaudrillard, writing about quantitative and qualititative values, still defined all value as essentially human value. That was all before AI. Now the human part is taken out.

He nods, and asks if I read the Washington Post.

 

Sometimes, I say.

 

He mentions, specifically the titles.

 

Oh yeah, I laugh. They're getting kind of Buzzfeed-y. I do recall one recent article titled, 'Everything You Need to Know About a Government Shutdown.' It was a titling technique that I was also taught as a professional blogger; quantify the value of the article in the title, then present information in a series of short bullet points- it's digestible.

I think it’s interesting that Halley embraces social media while painting Fouccault’s cells; to me, the internet is very much the panopticon made manifest, like a glittering labyrinth built in multi-point perspective.

“then if you think of objects as the crystallization of labor, mediums like video can’t be quantified in the same way- - and they’re literally ephemeral, non-material objects," I say- -

Peter partially cedes, but suggests that there may be complications to that statement. The possibilities in the realm of digital rendering allow for people to — complications that we don’t have time to finish discussing during this studio visit.

Maybe the possibility is for the possibility of creation without labor, but then what is creation.

He says, he's concerned that young artists aren't as intellectually and critically engaged as they were in his time. I agree, although I say, I've noticed, subjectively, for there to be a difference in that climate from LA to New York.
 

Halley brings up the topic of the art market, and mentions that he takes it as a point of pride that his work is not in the hands of uneducated billionaires. They don't really like it, he laughs. Most of my work goes to Europe, to people who own the family business, mostly to people who have been educated. I take that as a point of pride. It's not that I have that much control of who collects my work, that's just who my collectors are. As young artists, you need to find the audience- the critical audience and collectors- that suit you.

 

I actually don't mention this, but I do note that it seems that in the relationship between artists and collectors, generally people want to collect work that aestheticizes and celebrates their own values system- and even when a collector may not be deeply engaged in the critical theory behind a work, the values system that led to the work's creation will be formally apparent in a successful work, and legible, even if on an emotional or visceral level, to anyone who spends time with it.

 

Like I said, it feels good here.


Peter Halley’s work expresses the exuberant persistence of art in the face of chaotic political times.