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New York artist Halsey Hathaway creates colorful geometric abstractions upon dyed canvas. He has invented an arousing palette that ranges from soft muted tones to vibrant kaleidoscopic shades. His paintings are composed of subtle overlapping forms that are left open to interpretation and subjective reflection. Halsey chats to us from his home and studio in Bushwick, New York, about life and art.

Did you grow up in New York?

I grew up near Buffalo (NY) with the majority of my childhood in a small town called Lockport.  It’s about as far geographically and culturally as you can be from New York City, yet still be in the same state. That being said, my parents were very involved in world peace and political justice, so growing up we had people come and stay with us from all walks of life.

You grew up in the age of 80’s pop-culture; did it have any affect on you?

I can't say that I concerned myself with specific references of popular or commodity culture.  I didn't grow up with cable television and I was terrible at video games, so I spent most of my time in the back yard beating my brother with sticks.

Was art something that interested you from childhood?

Yes, of course.  There were two great places to see art in Buffalo: Albright Knox Museum and ArtPark and I loved going there as a child.  I can still picture this great Stella painting that hung in the lower hall at the Albright.  I don't know if my parents ever understood the piece, or it just didn't interest them, but they would always walk me past the painting to go to one gallery or another in the museum, but we never stopped to look at it.  Maybe that’s why I was so attracted to it.

Can you tell me about the days that lead you to study fine art at Pratt Institute?

I can't think of a time when I wasn't passionate about art and specifically painting. There never was a question for me about what I should do with my life; it was more about how I could get there.  I left to move to NYC and study painting at the age of 17, looking back that was an insane idea.  But I'm still here working on a lifetime of studying painting, so it seems I must still be crazy.

What were your student days at Pratt like?

I was always the youngest person around and because of that I felt the need to prove myself and be a real workaholic. I was very competitive all through my time at Pratt and in graduate school at Hunter as well, so I was always working on extra projects.  Plus, I was often an aggressive critic of my classmates and that would get me into trouble with my peers from time to time. Hopefully I've calmed down as I've gotten a little older.

Are you equally as critical of your own work? How do you self evaluate as an artist?

You know, now that I think about it, I have probably turned much of the outward criticism inwards, onto my own work. I evaluate my work mostly by holding it up to the same rigors and standards as the artists I admire.

Can you tell me about where you live and work?

I have a loft in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, which I share, with my wife, Jolynn.  When we got the place a while back, I used some award money to build the place out. I constructed free standing walls in the loft without blocking everything into rooms. The idea was to create different spaces yet still keep the place feeling open and fluid. Some days our place feels like a big apartment, but most of the time it feels like a big messy studio with a bedroom.

You graduated over 10 years ago and you have been exhibiting regularly. Where was your first exhibition?

I had been in several shows at independent spaces, but the first show was at a commercial gallery and was a big collage show at Roebling Hall. I exhibited four collages in this survey of young artists exploring the medium.  It was a great opportunity for me to meet some fantastic artists that I still keep in touch with. But it was an eye opener for me, I remember walking into the gallery to introduce myself to the dealers and no one seemed to care that my work was hanging on their walls.

You work across three mediums, drawings, paintings and collage but first started with collage?

The collages started as a side project actually, during a time when I was working through a lot of issues with the paintings. I was really forcing these labor intensive paintings and nothing good was happening. This was during the height of the Iraq war surge and our presence in Afghanistan was only getting worse.  And I was preoccupied with thoughts of the guys I knew that were over there fighting and about how far removed I was from that type of experience. I had been collecting images in newspapers and magazines of the wars for some time was thinking about how to manipulate the pictures to have a violent optical presence that could mirror the harsh physical realities of war. I wanted to use what I had learned in the paintings and apply it to specific socio-political concerns that couldn't be addressed in the paintings.

Colour plays a large role in your work. What motivates you to work with a rich and intense palette?

The environment of color in a painting is a huge concern for me. It sets the tone for how the constructs of the forms are going to be read by the viewer and I need the two to work together to build the piece. I try not to limit my influences for color, its a very surprising thing and I never know when something great will happen that I can bring back with me to the studio.

In your paintings you step away from the standard cream coloured artist canvases and use commercially dyed or pre-dyed canvas and then add stained layers and paint layers. Can you tell me about your process and how you arrived at it?

My process is certainly a complex one that has evolved from working with the materials over the years and naturally, studying how others are approaching painting. Often times I will get an idea and then try and figure out how to achieve those results and other times I will accidentally discover that there were overlooked opportunities with the materials I have chosen to use. So, yeah the use of commercially dyed canvasses was one way for me to move beyond the limits of material and add another level to the color constructs of the paintings.

The layers that you add are beautifully translucent and show great technique can you explain your method?

For each painting I have a series of pre-determined forms that are structured to build upon each other as each layer of the painting is laid down. I will stretch a colored canvas and then stain forms into the canvas before painting other forms on top in thick opaque paint, taking the time to mix each individual color to create impressions of transparency. The process and technique are inherent to the final painting and are what drives the progression of my work.

You have some interesting titles to your works, for instance ‘Better me than you’ which is a made of various shades of blue. It makes me want to know more about your choice of words and the relationship with what you have created on canvas. Can you explain this particular title?

For a period of time, I was making paintings in pairs and the titles would also reflect that pairing. So "Better me than you" is a partner to "Better you than me". I was giving the paintings very self-aware and self-defeating titles. So in this case, the painting you were asking about was more successful and I wanted the title to reflect my opinion. This came at the cost of no one else liking "Better you than me" and now I regret that title a little, I feel I neglected to give it its fair treatment.

There are also definable objects in you paintings, what are some these objects?

The layers in a painting accumulate to create very specific, yet unrecognizable forms. The intention of painting forms like this was to acknowledge some over looked aspects of our natural perceptual urges. The ideas in perceptual psychology for these experiences are called apophenia and more specifically paradolia. They are terms to describe how we subconsciously search for meaning in random information and will see recognizable objects in purely abstract forms. While the constructs in my paintings are not random, they are designed to play with those urges.

How would you describe your art in your own words?

I am asked this question frequently and I still don't have a good answer. I make paintings that are to be seen in the flesh. And to me, that means the paintings need to live and breathe, to be vulnerable to the changes of their environment and to changes within the viewer. They are paintings that aren't to be seen once and remembered in the mind's eye, they are things that are to be present in one's daily life.

I understand that Frank Stella, American painter and print maker from the 60’s, is a great inspiration to you.

Frank Stella is a giant in American abstract painting.  His pictorial inventions will surely influence artists for generations. But it’s also his writing that has had a major impact on my understanding of art history and how to experience the history of the world as a painter.

Are there any other artists that inspire you?

Morris Louis is a real champion for me. Other artists I spend time looking at are Mark Grotjan, Philip Taaffe, Peter Young, Suzan Frecon, Wayne Gonzales and Chris Ofili to name just a few. I also draw huge inspiration from some of my peers like Peter Demos, Amanda Valdez, Pat Berran and Amy Brener.

What does it mean to be an artist in New York now, in 2013?

Being an artist in New York now, means you need to be focused in the studio. It can be easy to lose sight of what is important in a city with this much glamour. The city is packed full of artists and galleries, every night there is always a distracting party somewhere with "the right person" you are supposed to meet.  But if your goal is to progress as an artist, that happens in the day to day and you will do whatever it takes to keep your time in the studio.

How do to stimulate your creative energy?

Hot black coffee.

What do you do to you relax?

Napping is very important.

How else do you spend your time, aside from painting?

I have a new found passion for mountain climbing. This summer, I summited Mt. Rainier and Mt. Kilimanjaro. I find myself training hard all the time, to go spend all my money, to suffer on the side of a mountain with little oxygen, just for the chance to have a truly amazing moment, which sometimes never comes. It’s just like painting.

Are you working on something new?

Yeah, I have been focused on large drawings lately. I had decided to put painting on hold for a couple months to evaluate where I am at with things and where I can grow. My drawing process allows for those explorations in a very quick and immediate way, where I can flush out all my ideas and see what takes off. There have been some cool new developments and I'm excited about where things are headed.

Will we be seeing your art in Europe anytime soon?

Unfortunately, I don't have any projects in Europe in the near future. But I'm hoping for some opportunities to appear on the horizon.


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