Peter Halley Makes a Move
Jeff Rian

Flash Art, October 1995.

Peter Halley makes a move, and as moves go it’s more a way of surrounding a progress of paintings than a radical change in the paintings themselves. However, the “surround” is rich in atmosphere and information such that what we know about signature Halley paintings can be seen in a different light. 

            Combining wall-stenciled flowcharts, R. Crumb-like wallpaper cartoons, painted walls (gray in his first of such exhibitions at the Dallas Museum, then black at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris), and a selection of recent, yet-more-complex paintings, the installation orchestrates the focus and slows it down, making you look at the “surround” before you look at the paintings. The result is a kind of poetic synergy between the calculation and intensity of the flowcharts – which invite you to examine and ponder – and the unseriousness of the cartoons. Paradoxically, the cartoons are serious while the flowcharts are not.

            Halley’s been collecting flowcharts for about four years, generally from books and academic journals, but only recently has he had them enlarged and stenciled for walls. Real as they are, though, without their contexts and captions it isn’t long before they start turning into the arcane algebra of a Rube Goldberg cartoon schematic.

            The sociological purpose of flowcharts is to map and model behavior, whether animal or mechanical. Curiously, one of art’s synthetic purposes is to abstract some element of reality in order to see it analogically, if more resonantly, also using some kind of pattern, model, or visual gestalt which gives form to idea. Captions should be omitted in art, however, as Halley omitted them, although viewers are not apprised of this; some may even think they’re actually his. But his intention in stenciling such charts onto walls was to suggest a way to read his paintings.

            Where the found flowcharts are meant to be ironic, the cartoons are only cartoonlike in substance, because they tell a tale of destruction, nuclear in type. In a sequence of nine vividly colored silkscreens, titled “Exploding Cell,” a toxic gas seeps through a conduit, into a concrete-looking chamber; the gas then explodes, solidifies, and becomes forever inert. In the upper-left corner of each is a small arabesque logo, a TV-like Halley-ism, whose purpose is to keep it “pop” and therefore familiar.

The flowcharts arise from cybernetics and systems analysis, which started to come of age in the age of television. The comics are also a carryover, but from the high sixties, circa ’68 to ’73, which back then was exemplified by R. Crumb’s Zap Comix. Crumb was doodling Breughel and Bosch, blending car culture à la “Big Daddy” Roth and Mad Magazine’s teenage-oriented absurdities, and feeding them through the bong-pipe of paranoid psychedelic subculture. Halley experienced those transitional if now lack-luster years first-hand and, since he began exhibiting in 1986, has revealed its vestiges, not only in the psychedelic colors, but also in his echoing of systems analysis and his critical remove from figures of authority. Halley was also a founding member of an art that was branded Neo-Geo, which emerged from neo-expressionism and the “pictures generation.”

            His first exhibited paintings were simple, Day-Glo colored geometric cells; they had the simplicity of late seventies “new image” paintings of Robert Moskowitz or Lois Lane, but were thematically more critical in spirit and more like Pop art in appearance. Each cell essentially represented a single life unit; an analog to places we inhabit. But like Daedalus’s labyrinth, this existential entity also represented us. Ergo, Halley’s so-called prison of abstract geometry simultaneously represented and critiqued the gridscape of cultural mind as it had been manifest in apartment houses, prison cells, classrooms, malls, and flowcharts. Hence they represented and critiqued the abstractness of authority – a recurring theme of a decade that was freighted with the abstractness of green paper, exchange values, and social critique, and which shuddered from the stock-market crash of October 1987, perhaps culminating with the tumbling of the Berlin Wall two years later.

            Moving beyond the Roman grid, which Bauhaus architects co-opted to create high modernism and which minimalists re-used to structure art’s “object-hood,” Halley focused on circuits and cells and conduits –the grid’s electronic offspring. And in spite of the social critique he implied, his finely crafted, intensely colored paintings nudged abstract art along, using psychedelic colors to make them pop, and prison windows to make them political. He wanted to connect them to the culture at large, while keeping them resident of the counter-environment of art. He even made a series of multipaneled homages to Newman to engender an artistic heritage for himself. But his most significant work began around 1990, when his prisonlike cellular environments began suggesting networks and electronic circuitry and, more significantly, when he goosed the color. These paintings recalled Frank Stella’s “Protractor” series, but were more flamboyant, if not quirkier. At Ropac’s he crossed whole moieties of colors: taffy brown, cotton-candy pink, and leisuresuit baby blue with Christmassy green and red; lavender and lime sorbet with shimmery-silvery ochre. These are not colors combined to submerge into flatness, but to assert themselves in the electronic space that defines them.

            Halley not only critiqued the circuit-based rat race of electronic life, he also synthesized and abstracted pop culture’s post-psychedelic electro-florescence, recalling the wardrobe of a southern golfer, polyester, the colors of candy wrappers, cigarette ads, Popsicles, cars, marking pens, Smurfs, fast-food-chain interiors, and students’ lemon and lime highlighters. The Roll-a-Tex texture conjured images of California stucco, school notebooks, spray ceilings, nubby carpets, zits, pizza, matte Formica, Boogie boards, etc.

In essence, he echoed the slap-dash, fast-food mentality of a culture based on novelty and replacement. And now that he’s installing paintings among flowcharts and cartoons, he’s gone a step further by goosing the atmosphere of the room, thus bringing to mind an urban environment like Los Angeles, with Pac Man as its architectural model, fuzzy logic as its organizing principle, and the vivid colors of sports costumery as its only appropriate garb. This may be what he means by “almost parodic.”

            Paradoxically, for all the precision and exactness and elegance of his paintings – an exactness that reflects the orderliness of classical modernism and the high-tech tape-paintings of post-painterly abstraction –behind them lurks the anxiety and self-questioning engendered in a scopophilic world consumed by self-witness and stuffed to the gills with electronic gadgetry. Thus, behind the procrustean logic of flowcharts, lies the dark foreboding of the cartoons. Hence the paradox.

            But art is full of paradoxes – it thrives on them in fact. The paradox between beauty and decay was a theme in l7th century Dutch still lifes and later in the Romantic’s inward gaze, and certainly it informed the pre-Pop an aesthetic of Robert Rauschenberg. Halley’s post-sixties foreboding hailed from the generation of bomb shelters and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). And where he borrowed from R. Crumb and Philip Guston for the cartoons, Frank Stella for color and geometry, and psychedelia for color and a dope-smoker’s incessant foreboding, subtending it all is a late-modern, late-capitalist personality that invokes the muses of Samuel Beckett, whose hapless but obsessive characters often ended up lying face-down in the mud, but always managed to preserve a sense of humor in the face of existential absurdity. This is partly what Halley conveys. For what is darkly reflected in the splendor of his surfaces and mazes and zippy colors is a bureaucratic Oz wracked by consumption, the expectancy of worst-case scenarios, the threat of earth-threatening pollutants, decreased happiness, Kafkaesque drudgery, and the mental fatigue of technological oversaturation. As was the case in a 17th century Dutch still life, what circumvents those dark perspectives is Halley’s undeniable feeling for paint and color, and above all, his exuberant style.

            Art is as much about style as it is about its subject or its paradoxes; and today, the demands of style and novelty are nuanced in ever-shorter frequency and marshaled by increasing and increasingly younger creators. In the five-year plan of art, style or technique are advanced in youth. Think of 23 year-old Frank Stella, most poets, all rock stars, J. M. Basquiat, Elvis and Andy et al. But with age comes the harder work of fleshing it out, expanding its territory, giving it body or what we call “content,” and making it extend into middle age and beyond. (Nowadays, one wonders if the demand for novelty will overtake the cult of personality entirely. Going back to Warhol’s oft-quoted “l5 minutes,” this could mean trouble for career seekers). The obvious problem is that artists have a more difficult time becoming elder masters, and few, if any, will become Picassos or Mondrians, or even Stellas or Lichtensteins, i.e., representatives of an age, particularly of so transitional an age as our own, exciting as it may be. This, in turn, brings us to time, maturity, and what it’s like to be a mid-career artist looking to expand, and who, in any other lifetime, would still be a young artist with a lot more time to broaden his/her potential to become a master at what he/she does based on what he/she first did. (At some point, as the Rolling Stones have duly noted – and perhaps warned, you simply do what you do).

            In the late eighties Halley wrote about art and electronic culture using the jargon of the times, much of which revolved around words like “simulacrum” and “hyperreal,” and invoked the highfalutin’ social criticism of Jean Baudrillard for whom the reality of models was thought to have supplanted the reality of actual space. (Hence Halley’s “culture of illusions”). Models, of course, represent potential in its purest form. Halley’s paintings were visually gentler than they were meant to be read, and it was their stylistic punch that brought them quick recognition and success. But it was an abstract, academically based model that informed them, and again paradoxically brought them to life.

Since 1990 or so he may have even “transgressed,” to use an eighties word, traditional uses of color, at least as most modernists had learned them – particularly if we view them from, say, the point of view of academic colorists like Itten or Albers. And their existence stems from what Kandinsky called “inner necessity”; yet they were fed through the tenor of our times, and followed Samuel Beckett’s conclusion that continuity is the only game left to play.

* * *

Jeff Rian: You’ve made an atmospheric change. In your recent exhibitions at the Dallas Museum and at Ropac’s in Paris you hung your paintings on cartoon-like wall paper; painted walls, and next to stenciled flowcharts. Where did the flowcharts and cartoons come from?

Peter Halley: They came from my information gathering. I’ve been working on ancillary projects for years – including new media, such as the fiberglass pieces I showed in Dallas. I started working on flowcharts in 1989 as a sustained project. There were four, although no one’s seen them until now. I have one from a sociology journal that compared behavior in a disco with behavior in a prison –it was serious, by the way. Another used the words Esclave and Maitre (slave and master); it was about computers, and another was about class and the legal system. The master/slave system is a slightly sexual code, the other has to do with philosophical attributes of behavior and class. 

JR: Is there a logical relationship between the flowcharts and your paintings?

PH: When I was planning to include them in my Dallas show some people said that it would be too didactic to put a flowchart next to a painting to show the connections between them. But I use flowcharts that are as opaque as possible; in other words there is no specific information. In fact, they make no sense without their captions. What happened in Dallas was that viewers first looked at the flowcharts, then they looked at the paintings. I think it was a way of giving the average person information about the paintings. Nevertheless, I think they’re very literary. But I also consider them absurdist poetry, like Ionesco or Beckett.

JR: Do people read them seriously?

PH:They try, but then they don’t really make sense.

JR: And the cartoons?

PH: One was from a painting that I did in 1985: smoke is coming out of a cell and then it explodes. Three or four years ago I made a print of the cell exploding. It looked like a comic book page. I blew it up on the computer, then auto-traced it.

JR: I thought that you had come to some other level of awareness about exhibiting, because there was a lot more visual information in the room which one could “read” or intuit, without needing any other explanation.

PH: Well it’s based more on poetics than analysis. But it’s also a little about confidence. When you start out you want to be tight, and maintain control, and not go beyond what you can do well. It’s easier for me now to take risks. I mean, I might have been able to do it when I was twenty, but when I was thirty I didn’t think I could pull it off.

JR: This more complex presentation also is resonantly warmer than ever before.

Does this have anything to do with the passing of time? An eighties to nineties transition? 

PH: I had my first show in ’86, and my earlier paintings were rational, diagrammatic, and logical. Then I made a break around 1990, and since then they’ve become really exaggerated, almost parodic; and they aren’t analytical at all. In any case, I don’t see a great formal break in the 90s, although there is a psychological break. I think we’ve reached a state where the exhibition has become the integer of meaning. I saw a catalog from the 1950s of a Franz Kline exhibition at Sidney Janis in New York. The unit meaning then was the painting, whereas the unit of meaning now is the exhibition itself. In 1983 I did a show at the John Weber called “Science Fiction,” which was not unlike my show at Ropac in Paris. The walls were painted black. I hung a Bleckner stripped painting, one of Richard Prince’s “Entertainers,” a Smithson light piece, a Jeff Koons boxed and neon-lit vacuum cleaner, and red Judd box. I wanted it to mix a movie theater or night-club feeling with a sort of underground science fiction feeling. I was always interested in using an exhibition in a theatrical way. Now I’m interested in doing things with energy.

JR: Cartoons by R. Crumb, purist paintings, system flowcharts. Do these all de-

scribe one personality?

PH: I don’t really think of myself as a schizophrenic artist in the sense of, say, Richter or Polke. Mine are more like an underground observation of pop culture. I like pop things, but I also like paintings that are discrete and images that are distilled; so I’m also interested in Beuys, whose installations were composed of discrete works that add up to make meaning. I try to make paintings that evoke particular kinds of visual experience in so far as they might have a high level of, I don’t know, allegorical information, psychological intensity, whatever you want to call it.

JR: Do they represent different areas of culture? 

PH: I think they represent different kinds of audiences and means of production for things visual, such as comics, paintings, and flowcharts, which are bureaucratic.

JR: Recently a nerdy-looking computer hacker known as Mr. Cyberpunk was caught by a computer security specialist who looked like a freak. Today, art is merging more and more with fashion, music, cinema, and architecture. To me such cross-overs also reveal a shift in cultural personality which I don’t think would have been acceptable to any bureaucracy before now.

PH:The experience of 20th century art is about the interpretation of the ego. From my point of view, that era is ending. Over the last ten years or so I’ve become interested in pre-Enlightenment culture. The end of the Enlightenment is the end of the culture of logic or reason – or the fiction of reason, which was invented in the Enlightenment. I’m also interested in the recurrence of what was talked about in the 1970s as tribalism, particularly micro-cultures in the United States, whether they’re born-again Christians, or motorcycle clubs, or cults.

JR: From the Enlightenment up to us – the television generation, literacy was the prime mover. Now it’s the support medium for much faster media. Marshall McLuhan was lambasted for saying that — even though he was a print man to the bone; and Walter Ong used the term “secondary orality” in his book Orality and Literacy to describe the culture of television, telephones, and film.

PH: Yes but I don’t think you can pretend that traditional Western thinking or “non-media culture” doesn’t exist. I still think there’s a specialized class of people who are essentially a technical class upon whom the culture depends and whose values are transmitted into the society.

JR: They do go out of power; though.

PH: There’s no general literacy as there once was, but there’s still a small class, which I’d call a scribe class, that can read and write, and who is responsible for running the culture, editing the magazines, etc. But I also strongly believe we live in a culture of illusions. A lot of younger artists seem to have done away with the entire canon of culture. I can’t do that, so I find myself between two worlds. One of my theories is that when a culture grows so large, people return to tribal activities. Another theory is that the art world was one of the first of these tribes. In that sense art is an interesting model. 

Jeff Rian is a critic based in Paris. He regularly contributes to Flash Art.