Trompe-l'œil (sounds like: trump loy) is when an artist creates a super-realistic illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, so that when you look at the painting your eyes are fooled into thinking there are literal objects there. Kirk Hayes’ ironic use of trompe-l'œil is a brilliant innovation that has drawn the most attention from critics to his work, even if they have failed to fully explain why Hayes might be doing this. He will first make a collage or assemblage of colored paper and other items, whether it to get a worn out or damaged look for the emotional effect he desires, and he then perfectly depicts the collage as a painting, revealing, instead of hiding, traces of the original collage.
So he perfectly represents the collage he made, showing the seams, textures and three-dimensional elements as trompe-l'œil. He does not use the collage as a basic model for a painting, he creates the collage so he can literally paint the collage in minute detail. Folks are often fooled into thinking they are actually looking at a collage or assemblage of colored paper and other doodads and are stunned to find that the wood or plastic or string or any other material depicted is mere paint.
Of course, we want to say, “Wait a minute. You’re not supposed to do that! You are supposed to hide the collage elements, not make them more noticeable by painting them. Why not just display the collage?” Hayes, by the way, destroys the original collage once he paints it. Art critic Ken Johnson guessed in a New York Times review that Hayes was making a sly comment “…on modern arts love of the raw and naïve.” It may be a little more complex than this, however.
There are times when an artist wants you to keenly realize that you are looking at art, something he/she made and how it was made. Sometimes the artist wants traces of his/her work to be seen. So Hayes paradoxically uses a realistic painting technique to fully reveal something he fabricated. Trompe-l'œil is supposed to give the illusion of reality, and Hayes uses it to give the illusion of reality to a collage. In the theater Brecht, for example, created the concept of “epic” theater because he believed that traditional, realistic “bourgeois” theater lulled an audience to sleep and apathy and he wanted jarring and obviously contrived elements of his productions to wake people up to interpret and feel more deeply. He wished to reveal the ploys of theater to his audience to show both the possibilities and limits of art and to keep them mentally active through production.
Perhaps Hayes wants you to see how he cut, handled, weathered and positioned the paper in his assemblages because you may be able to better discern or at least be tempted to guess the inner state he was in when he did this. This is the principle of “action painting” which Pollock used so successfully. The focus shifts from the image to the psychology of the artist creating the image. Hayes is going to great pains to paint the way he created and/or presented the imagery in his work. How the artist creates his art often reveals more about what is being conveyed than looking at the figures and constructing our little narratives about the piece.
I would argue that Hayes is trying to get closer to revealing his inner state by amplifying the collage-making technique through his trompe-l'œil painting. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that every material has its own language and every technique, perhaps, has its own language. To me Hayes is painting the language of collage, what collage can better reveal about the conflicts and struggles that an artist might be going through so that we viewers who are also struggling can derive some meaning and solace from this. There are reasons why an artist wants to resort to the language of collage, and Hayes is amplifying our focus on this.
Deriving meaning from Hayes's work might depend heavily on examining how he created and structured his work since many of the paintings seem very idiosyncratic and might defy any narratives we might try to create to “understand” them in a traditional manner. Some are more understandable than others. In Ephemeral we see a brief moment when a butterfly is extracting nectar from a daisy. Both have endured extremely adverse conditions as the flower is slightly burnt here and there while the butterfly is covered with band-aids. A common theme in many of the paintings seems to be the capacity that exists to continue living and striving even while we are severely battered and harmed. Much of our work that has to be done in the world cannot wait for us to be fully healed; we have to go out there and engage others while suffering and even while feeling emotions due to our past suffering. Deep down inside, perhaps, we hope the healing will be quicker if we keep working instead of licking our wounds.
In some of the paintings, we see an unexpected soft or gentle tenacity. In the painting Accepting Fragility we see the arms of a severely bruised person offering a butterfly tied to a folded pillow to someone. The arms recalled for me the arms of an elderly man I had once talked to at a hospital who had had so many blood tests taken on his aged, wrinkled and weakened arms that both of his arms were covered with bruises as if he had endured several beatings. The gentleness of the gesture of offering belies the pain, or perhaps derives from the pain of the person presenting the gift. The gift seems to represent the capacity to suffer without bitterness or malice, to offer joy in spite of pain.
Some paintings defy, at least for me, easy narrative explanations: the Fall of the Dildo King, for example. In this painting we see a crown with four dildos protruding from it, slender plants protruding from the dildos above a brick wall. Symbolically, the penis can represent desire, especially spiritual desire for a type of spiritual fulfillment. To me, this enigmatic painting shows a mystical process of spiritual life emerging from imitative, artificial circumstances. (Hey, give me credit for trying!)
Then there is Response to a Resharpened Fasces. The term fascist, of course, comes from the word fasces. Fasces refers to the bundle of sticks that are more difficult to break united than separated and which were traditionally placed around a pike axe in ancient Rome. A pile of feces is on the fasces. Knives have been stuck into the feces, so maybe we have a type of pun where the feces and the fasces have both been resharpened. Fascism seems alive and well in parts of the world and even, perhaps, threatens our country. But the response to fascism, represented by a pile of feces placed on the fasces, has also become more prominent and we have to wonder whether this will be enough to stop a retrograde political trend. I am guessing that the knives stuck into the feces could also just represent extra aggression against the re-emerging fasces.
The cuts and bruises in these paintings can represent the lingering effects of guilt, shame, a sense of failure, disappointment or regret for actions that cannot be undone and for which one may always feel remorse. They could represent the continuous stabs of pain that we endure due the callousness and heartlessness of others, which might engender heartlessness in us to compound our own suffering, unless we fight against this process. Hayes paintings for me evoke the New Testament story of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda who, for 39 years, endured intense pain persisting in his belief that healing was somehow possible, until it finally occurred.