Michael Roch + Kirk Hayes

Conduit Gallery

Tracee W. Robertson

Conduit Gallery began the fall season with exhibitions of new work by Michael Roch (Marfa) and Kirk Hayes (Fort Worth). Roch’s paintings and sculpture present recognizable iconography and require the viewer to create a path of understanding urged by subtle verbal clues, while Hayes’ paintings provide ambiguous scenarios that draw one into the imagery long enough to soak in the raw emotion left by the artist. In both cases, there are specific stories to tell or references to reveal. However, in neither case is it necessarily more interesting to know the artist’s intended meaning than to develop the meaning oneself.

Michael Roch’s installation Between Nadir and Zenith (2003) fills the center of the front gallery with small, organic forms that hang from the ceiling and hover just above the floor on thin metal rods. They are colorful, fuzzy clouds, and with them Roch provides an opportunity to traverse the sky. Likewise, Roch’s paintings are filled with clouds. Happiness finds us on cloud nine. The sun ripples through the clouds producing magnificent sunsets, and downy figures such as horses, frogs and cherubs live in the clouds. However, only one or two billowy white clouds appear in Between Nadir and Zenith; most are red, orange, blue and black. Roch’s work is full of such contradictions—fanciful and fun with a faint sense of the unnatural.

Roch’s paintings are made from acrylic and joint compound sprayed on gypsum board, a mechanical process that literally erases the artist’s hand from the work. Imagery is created with texture or with the absence of texture. Images of clouds, tree trunks, rabbits, ships, etc., are condensed to graphic silhouettes that are meant to be read as one reads a text. Even so, there is no beginning or end, only the free association of ideas teased out by the juxtaposition of signs. For example, in About Helios (2003) a gray bull floats between the pastel brown and foamy green points of a backgammon board, each created with sprayed texture over a smooth pink surface.

Michael Roch, About Helios, 2003
Pigmented joint compound on gypsum board
40 x 33 inches

Helios is the Greek god of the sun. Zeus, the god of the sky—the rain god and the cloud gatherer—often disguised himself as a bull in order to seduce fair maidens, undetected by his wife. Backgammon is one of the oldest recorded games in history. One can easily imagine that the gods of the sun and the sky would have much to dispute. Or, perhaps Zeus was merely a pawn in some type of celestial game. In an otherwise detached presentation of imagery, the artist’s hand returns, so to speak, in his thoughtful and often verbose titles. Through them, Roch suggests where one is to begin a reading of his work.

As in past work, Roch weaves the contemporary with the romantic, drawing on history, poetry and mythology. I like breathing better than working for Robert Arber (2003) features submarine silhouettes that refer to recent and historical maritime disasters and their environmental implications. The shapes are sandwiched between orderly, maze-like borders that look like ancient motifs and provide mystery to the context. To the athlete dying young (2003) presents a white rabbit cradled by a pink laurel, floating in a chalky gray field and surrounded by bulbous white clouds. The images and pastel colors are graphically pleasing, and as ever, the viewer is ultimately responsible for contemplating the language Roch has created.

Far from mechanical, Kirk Hayes’ new body of work is about painting. He continues to offer the illusion of assemblage, suggesting torn cardboard, rusted metal, wood scraps and masking tape as painted effects. Hayes has perfected the trick of trompe l’oeil, a method used to confuse representation with reality. His use of visual trickery is meant to make us believe we are looking at tattered and discarded objects put together on gritty, torn surfaces, complete with coffee cup rings and doodles. Or is it?

More interesting than Hayes’ finesse with paint is his decision to employ collage, a technique used by Dada artists who eschewed accepted conventions and explored ideas of chance and randomness. Hayes takes advantage of this method as part of his creative process, putting pieces of detritus together and then painting them—a transformation of life’s difficulties into art. He takes an irreverent approach to his paintings, placing his coffee cup on them as he works and keeping them around long enough to collect grime. He also scribbles titles on them with a ballpoint pen, or so it appears. Although his use of collage is more pragmatic than subversive, Hayes shares the Dadaist’s mischievous intent by producing his faux-assemblages in oil and enamel on signboard. With extraordinary skill, he draws us in to admire his work and thus tricks us into encountering his subjects, which are grotesque, sarcastic, and often cathartic.

More important than whether or not these visual effects are real, the idea of them—of Hayes actually writing on the work with a ballpoint as if writing a letter—divulges his physical intimacy with the work as an object and confirms the grittiness of his subjects. Some are more obvious than others, but all refer to the artist’s personal struggles, emotions, and musings. In I Got Your Weapon of Mass Destruction Right Here (2003), a chalky pink head spins around on a metal rotisserie, spewing fluid from cone-like protuberances. The title of the piece indicates that this spinning, secreting form—perhaps a media personality, or a political or religious figure, or the artist himself—can churn out so-called weapons of mass destruction in its medium of choice (i.e., articles or sermons).

Kirk Hayes, The Long Sigh, 2003
Enamel, oil and pencil on signboard
40 x 40 inches

In Pig Saw, the rump of a pig is attached with masking tape to a saw blade cutting a short piece of lumber. The background is a mottled, brownish black with the title written at the top in what looks like blue crayon—an observable play on the words “jig saw.” In Submerged (2003), an elephant-headed Hayes floats silently in murky green water using his trunk as a snorkel, hiding from the world and wallowing in muck. In The Long Sigh (2003), the artist has fallen backwards in his chair and a long, therapeutic sigh in the form of a brownish stream flows from his mouth like a cartoon bubble.

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, describes Philip Guston’s painting Painter’s Forms II (1978) as an example of the artist literally “spewing out a field of representational symbols.” In Guston’s work, these include legs, shoes, cigarette butts and trash can lids, which are “images that come out of his head, and for which he takes responsibility.” Hayes’ imagery shares Guston’s cartoon-like qualities, and like Guston, Hayes can be seen as laying out his internal experiences with a need to communicate them in the symbolic realm.

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