White Columns and Lisson Gallery
Hugh Hayden’s wooden sculptures—skeletons and furnishings fused with branches—evoke many associations. His recent debut solo exhibition at White Columns, which followed showings at Frieze London and FIAC Paris (after a 2018 MFA from Columbia University, where he served as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s teaching assistant), featured two large-scale works. In Hangers (2018), bones strung from two hangers on a rolling garment rack form the top and bottom of a human torso pierced by branches. The title, which acknowledges Hayden’s African American roots, refers to the public lynchings perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and others. Brier Patch (2018) depicts six handmade, old-style school chairs with a thicket of branches growing out of them, conjuring the trickster that originated in Senegalese, Algonquin, and other tales before Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908) included his version, Br’er Rabbit, in the Uncle Remus tales. Fleeing from a tar baby and a fox, Br’er Rabbit uses a briar patch as an escape route. Does education serve the same purpose?
Most of Hayden’s construction methods are transparent, but some are not. The joinery and treatment of the tree pieces, which have been partially de-barked and shaped and partially left as branches, give dead fall a new life. By turning tree branches into skeletal forms, Hayden implies that the ongoing desecration of the earth will haunt—and ultimately kill—the human perpetrators. The bones, while recalling Halloween, more somberly evoke exposed grave pits like the one I once stumbled across in a churchyard in the Italian Alps, which contained the remains of unburied bodies from World War II. Many early African American graveyards, like the site of the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York, have been either covered over or exhumed and moved to make way for urban development. Hayden’s materials and images run through endless associations, but there is a coherent message. As the exhibition press release states, his “work considers various methods and different approaches to the idea of ‘camouflage’; exploring the idea of blending into the natural landscape as a metaphor for assimilation into or rejection from greater social ecosystems.”
Shortly after Hayden’s White Columns show, “Border States” opened at the Lisson Gallery, continuing his signature combination of salvaged wood and cautionary tales. This time, his artfully made wood objects included a baby stroller (a nod to Nari Ward’s symphony of abandoned strollers), a table and chairs (America), a crib (Oreo), and a picket fence (The Jones Part 3). These iconic tropes for “home” all feature sharp points that may signify danger or fear—from the thorns lining the crib to spears on the table and chairs, to jutting branches on the baby’s Wagon. The various hues of the wood—all from species in Hayden’s home state of Texas, including aromatic Eastern red cedar, ashe juniper from the Hill Country, Texas ebony found near the border with Mexico, and mesquite—suggest that race, ethnicity, and nationality affect assimilation and acceptance, especially in “border states.”
Hayden’s other works are equally nuanced in meaning. His Adirondack chair looks traditional except for the fact that long round pieces thrusting out at odd angles like fingers make it impossible as seating. His take on a picnic table, The Jones: Part 2, which was shown at Frieze New York, is likewise covered in spiky wooden parts, reminding us of living trees when it’s outside and of the nature we’re missing when it’s inside. Jones and bones are soul words, again with many meanings. An African American composer friend says that “The Jones” can be a habit or urge and “earning” or “making one’s bones” is about belonging. Simultaneously cautionary, critical, and aesthetically attuned, Hayden’s work suggests two overriding things: that we all need to recognize each other and that we all belong to the earth.