On ViewFreight + Volume
James Hyde: Public Sculpture
November 12 – January 3, 2021
Calling Public Sculpture a painting show is like describing Moby Dick as a book about whaling: it misses the scope of the ambition. This exhibition extends James Hyde’s current practice of combining photographic imagery with paint and other materials on a variety of flat surfaces, including linen, board, and steel. Playing with the conventions of painting, these works have aesthetic appeal, but Hyde is after bigger game. In his September 2017 Brooklyn Rail essay Against Space, he argues convincingly that “space,” a foundational term bandied about in fine art academic circles, is “a historical modernist convention,” not “a timeless idea.” That skepticism of convention runs through his entire practice, a thread that connects varied approaches to painting and sculpture. Hyde’s object-making has always acted as a fulcrum to leverage open-ended philosophical inquiries into perception, psychology, and consciousness.
On one level, Public Sculpture with Coffee (2018) addresses the way we experience public art, as opposed to seeing it in a gallery or museum. In its lower right corner, a photograph of a city street scene shows two people enjoying their coffee outside a Starbucks. Next to them is an abstract sculpture of giant fire-engine red cylinders stacked off-kilter: Balanced Cylinders (1984), by Paul Sisko. Located outside the entrance to the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, it is a striking piece at 2 tons and 28 feet high. The coffee drinkers, paying no heed to the sculpture, look instead at their phones. As far as they are concerned, Balanced Cylinders is as exciting as a Starbucks coffee. As this show’s press release notes, public sculpture quickly fades into the background, only getting activated under rare circumstances—as a public nuisance, like in the controversy that surrounded Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981–89), or as an epicenter of political protest, like the Robert E. Lee memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. Our experience of Hyde’s painting, only 39 by 32 inches, in a private gallery, has an impact that the gigantic sculpture, at least for the coffee drinkers, did not.
On another level, Public Sculpture with Coffee examines the primacy we unconsciously give to images as opposed to things. Hyde includes additional images of Balanced Cylinders in the upper third of Public Sculpture with Coffee, cropping the images so that the red cylinders read as abstract designs rather than objects in the world. The lower left corner of the painting, a dark red triangle, completes the painting’s trajectory from illusion to abstract color and surface. Hyde transitions from gestalt—the photograph—to pure sensation—the lower left corner—chopping up the image into smaller increments until the gestalt breaks down. The capacity to organize our visual field to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface is an exceptional capacity of our species, but in Public Sculpture with Coffee Hyde illustrates the downside: it makes us less present in the moment. Our constant search for pattern recognition can deprive us of the sensations of immediate experience. For example, interpreting the image of the photograph, we gloss over the rich reds of the sculpture until Hyde breaks down the whole into its parts.
In other words, Hyde forces us to look with fresh eyes through visual propositions that challenge our habits of seeing. At times he achieves astonishing poetry. A good example in the show is Goddess (2020), which brings together acrylic and acrylic dispersion painted over an inkjet print. The painting reads as abstract, until you begin to notice the presence of the photographic image beneath. However, Hyde obviates any attempt to clearly interpret this image by painting over it. On top of the paint layer, moreover, he glues small rectangular blocks at random intervals, placed in parallel, running left to right. Finally, two bold black stripes seem to tamp down the entire composition, until we notice a foam that flecks the entire surface. The recognition of that texture transforms our understanding of the entire painting, giving it a lift and buoyancy that plays off the blocks and the heavy black lines of the composition. Perhaps, in the title, Hyde is referring to Aphrodite Anadyomene, rising from the sea? But in any case, with this immaterial foam Hyde is making both an ontological proposition—he plays with the boundary between the image and the rest of the world—and an epistemic proposition—he makes us wonder how to interpret its significance. Hyde frustrates our ability to find solid ground on both counts, making instead the suggestion we abide in that uncertainty until we finally see what’s actually in front of us.