Peter Halley. Painting represents us

[Read original version in catalan]

Is it possible that painting represents us, creatures of the 21st century? Peter Halley’s reply to the question is a resounding “yes”. There is only one law here: that art should stir our mood, our spirit: relativist, hedonist, urbanite, cybernetic, roughly solitary. When Halley made his debut in New York, in the early-1980s, he realised that the conceptual movement did not reject painting in itself so much as the worn-out values projected in the genre. Neo-expressionism reproduced old romantic tricks, minimalism the empty voluptuousness of the ornament. And Halley counter-attacked: faced by the absence of everything, he proposed exploring the parts; before the messianic discourse, he plumped for irony and a playful approach to the everyday, the palpable; before form, he proposed existence. Let us not seek art in purity and sincerity, he added, let us create fiction from the colours, forms, skins and tensions of our time.

However, let us give content to geometry. Geometry represents us. The 20th century – with Malevich, Rothko, Mondrian, Newman – had imbued geometry with a transcendent nature when, in fact, the geometric symbolises everything that we are ashamed of as a civilisation: control, limits, expansion, excess. Let us rethink it, then: geometry may be a hub for reflection on our existential state. Halley has spent thirty years exploring the volumes that modulate our lives. Painting enables him to do this through the minimum expression. In essence, our life is structured by cells and tubes. We inhabit enclosed spaces – prisons, in the artist’s view: these are the structural volumes of our times, as the square or the temple were in times gone by. Tubes – ducts, threads, paths, roads – feed us in our isolation. Halley believes that geometric art is firmly embedded in our everyday life. Today, painting can only aspire to describing the deployment of geometry in our lives. And not only in form, but also in colour and materials: Halley employs Day-Glo artificial colours, psychedelic electro-fluorescence and Roll-a-Tex textured materials. And all this, combined with infinite variations on the same pictorial model since 1984.

His work is, without doubt, the sublimation of an existential trauma. Halley grew up in the abstract, mass-produced grid of Manhattan. He lived in a fourteen-storey brick building that rose around a rectangular courtyard surrounded by construction and cement. From the window of his tiny room, all he could see were windows. He felt alien and mechanical. But that angular city is the same one that shot him to fame. This was the culturally active East Village in 1984, 1985, 1986, when galleries, artists, musicians and intellectuals were born.  Halley belongs to the so-called neo-geo generation, the first to imbue art with a cybernetic aesthetic. I now believe that the Anglo-Saxons – Baldessari, Hamilton et al – are amongst the very few who have found a good balance between form and concept, between object and thought, to represent our period. I also feel that Peter Halley has exaggerated somewhat in his crusade against transcendent art. In the final outcome, he has grasped symbols that identify with, and with this gesture he has transcended his limits as an artist prisoner of a particular time, city or country. Despite this, in 2012 no less, stubborn and sharp, Halley still seeks answers to the same old mortal questions: Why does geometry soothe me? Why do I feel so good in a room on my own?

[Published in Bonart, May 2012]  Original article in pdf

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