Before seeing the works on display at this recent Alex Hay show, one passed through an exhibition by Medardo Rosso. In the front gallery, 10 versions of Rosso’s Bambino ebreo (Jewish Boy, 1890s)—a sculpture of a child’s face—demonstrated the artist’s interest in the changing effects of materiality within a serialized subject. Rounding the corner to the second gallery, one was immediately confronted with another set of heads—a triptych of Hay’s own, skull-like face on paper. Beyond were additional Hay faces in triplicate, along with large, close-up images of patterns or grains of linoleum and wood rendered in colored pencil on paper or sprayed acrylic on linen. Separated by over a century, the works in the two shows were surprisingly resonant. Like the elusive, persistent spirit in Rosso’s child, Hay’s subjects emanate a subtle life via traces of the artist’s hand and the evidence of time passing.
Fifty years ago, Jasper Johns pressed his face and hands onto a stone and printed from it Skin with O’Hara Poem (lithograph, 1963-65). When you do something like that, it looks like a skull, and people will make the mortal associations. Hay is now 85 years old, and his signature on some of these works wobbles. However, his arduous process testifies to a persistent creative force. Covering his face with charcoal suspended in gum Arabic, he pressed it against rice paper, which wrinkled under the pressure. That became the first image in each of the six triptychs on view—skin and cranium, not unlike the Johns. He then traced it in red on a translucent vellum paper, flipping this second sheet over and redrawing the red line in pencil. This second image almost looks digitally drawn, but it’s not. The red line is visible beneath the gray like the intimation of blood in a vein. The graphite provided the image for a third drawing, made from a stencil in colored pencil on a nubby watercolor paper. The repeating triptychs, differing slightly one to the next, created a feeling of habitation—haunted, perhaps—in the show as a whole. This sense was exacerbated by two larger works in colored pencil excerpting a shape from the linoleum patterns; though entirely abstract, the silhouetted shape resembles a blobby striding figure and suggests that even Hay’s lifeless topographies are invested with spirit.
Replication is hardly new to Hay; in various forms, it’s been his stock in trade since the 1960s, when he would painstakingly reproduce ordinary objects such as a paper bag or chicken wire, sometimes in three dimensions and sometimes in two. The results can be uncanny. For the past decade or so he has focused on reproducing the surfaces of ordinary construction materials, such as the wood and linoleum here. Like the faces, these were conceived in series; pencil renderings become stencils that are eventually spray-painted on linen. Blown up to four or five feet, the grains and marbling read as large, handsome abstractions. Their titles sometimes include dates, implying when they were made, or other, more poetic references to time (Three Times Green Time; Monday Night 9-10-12). That one grows more conscious with age of time passing seems germane here; along with the presence of the eerie faces a theme of mortality is altogether unavoidable.