Private Collection, Texas
Heather James Fine Art, California
Peter Halley emerged in the 1980s in the so-called Neo-Conceptual or Neo-Geometric Conceptualism (Neo-Geo) art movement. Eulogy is a monumental work that confronts us physically and conceptually. At first glance, Halley and this painting appear to be a continuation of abstraction in art history. There were the Concrete and Neo-Concrete artists in Europe and Latin America that used geometric shapes as investigations into logic, form, and shape. There were also the Minimalists whose industrial identity erased the hand of the artist to explore process and materiality.
And yet, Halley is not so much continuing these lines of thoughts as exploding them, questioning how geometry is not so much logical order but the very process in which society has been organized, shaping and systematizing structures of power. Some of the most striking parts of Halley’s work are the rigidly geometric shapes which he interprets as “prisons” or “cells”. Halley has been interested in the splintering and shaping of social spaces through the use of geometry and the flow of information with many of his ideas stemming from the French Post-Structuralists like Michel Foucault. One need only think of Foucault’s writings on the panopticon to think of the interplay between the geometricization of spaces and structures of power.
Even the materials used in the painting points to this deep inquiry into society and power. The textured surface is not a buildup of paint but Roll-a-Tex, a popular texturizer used on walls. Halley appears to ask us to consider the materials we use in construction and combined with his geometric shapes, the very architecture itself. Within this use of a commercial product, Halley opens up Postmodern ideas that questions a seemingly celebratory use of a banal and cheap product. In short, it is a subversive and ironic use of an item that promotes surface and appearance over substance.
Halley’s carefully chosen deployment of Day-Glo also bolsters the concepts underpinning his works. The Day-Glo both attracts us in its brightness, but it also hints at something deeper. Think of bright colors in animals – beautiful but a dire warning to consume at one’s own peril. Contrast this with the paintings of Frank Stella and Anne Truitt whose colors seem celebratory and affirming. The Roll-a-Tex and Day-Glo, seemingly wonderful inventions, are themselves prisons. As Halley once quipped, “It always intrigued me that the American image of freedom was being in a car on the ‘open road’… Well, there’s nothing much more restrictive that you could possibly do than drive a car on a highway where your body movements are limited to a few centimeters, where you have to vigilantly stay in your assigned lane or risk serious harm or death.”
Halley’s paintings trade on this similar sentiment – that structures and systems, set up through geometric shapes – define our roles and our movements. Perhaps more neutrally, we can turn to the philosophies of Spanish theorist José Ortega y Gasset in which ‘yo soy yo y mi circunstancia’ – I am I and my circumstance – a continuous dialogue between the individual and structures.
Piecing all of these concepts together we are confronted with a work of enormous meaning, that draws us in to observe it closer and deconstruct concepts within the painting and within the very physical spaces around us. Who has shaped the buildings we live in? How do we travel, physically and digitally? Who determines the networks of connections?
For more about Halley and the Neo-Conceptual artists, visit our virtual exhibition It Was Acceptable in the 80s.
Peter Halley in front of a mockup for his work
Peter Halley, “A Perfect World”, 1993, Day-Glo acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on canvas, 90 x 147 3/16 in., The Broad, Los Angeles
Peter Halley, “The Extinction of Feeling”, 1991, 91 ¾ x 90 1/8 x 3 ¾ in., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Frank Stella, “Hyena Stomp”, 1962, alkyd paint on canvas, 77 x 77 in., Tate Collection, London. Stella’s colors seem celebratory and affirming in comparison to Halley’s subversive use of bright color.
Peter Halley at an exhibition opening
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