Currently on show at Stuart Shave / Modern Art is a select survey of works by esteemed American painter Peter Halley. The works focus on paintings, drawings and prints from a pivotal period in his career, 1982-1987. It is during this period that Halley began developing a striking signature visual language that he has refined and expanded on over the last four decades. It is comprised of textured and flat geometric elements that he refers to as prisons, cells and conduits. These seemingly abstract compositions were reflections of the increasing geometric divisions of the social and domestic spaces Halley saw people inhabiting. Yet at the same time, Halley was also exploring the developing social mechanics of digitalisation – and it is this aspect that now, with greater context, keeps Halley’s work necessary; poised as a key critique of contemporary life.
Halley’s artistic process and delivery is at once both outwardly analytical and subtly autobiographical. He has said of moving back to New York in 1980 after graduating from the University of New Orleans, that living alone felt like ‘I was in some kind of prison’ and that because of this he began to think of the ‘prison cell as an analogy for urban life’. Works such as ‘Two Cells with Conduit and Underground Chamber’ (1983) and ‘Study for Prison with Underground Tunnel’ (1983) easily echo this. The former, one of the smaller of Halley’s exhibited paintings, is a square canvas with the top half painted in light cream and the bottom half in slate grey. Black stucco square cells inhabit the top half with a matrix of thin orange lines linking down to a small cream square on the right side of the bottom half. The drawing, one of the first works the viewer sees, is comprised of a square cell, dotted to symbolise the stucco surface of his paintings, with a barred window – a prison – at the top of the image. A line across the composition marks ground level. From the bottom of the prison two further levels of underground blacked-out chambers are connected by conduits. The far-right cell of each underground cell is the same size as the one above ground and appears directly below the prison. The graph paper Halley drew this on, again emphasises a life designed and governed by geometry. The conduits between cells and the vertical alignments of cells are like hallways – the elevator openings guide the viewer’s eye movement through the works just as architectural spaces do with our bodies.
However, it is in Halley’s larger paintings of this period in which he employs the use of multiple canvases to denote above and below ground level, that one really can experience the breadth of the visual language created by Halley’s investigation. ‘Two Cells With Circulating Conduit’ (1987) is perfect example. A long, thin rectangular canvas painted flatly in a florescent DayGlo orange sits immediately below a much larger rectangular canvas also painted in the same way. Two stucco square cells are painted side by side so that they sit centrally on the whole composition and on the base line of the top canvas. The left is red and the right is blue. Coming out of the top of each square and running across the canvas to link them together are three thin black lines. This is mirrored on the bottom canvas to create a circuit between the two. When viewed up-close and nuanced by the lighting, the blue cell shimmers like trapped water while the red cell seems to embody the red-hot heat of burning embers. There is a suggestive interplay of polar-opposites and isolated elements. But when the viewer steps back again and sees the composition, these simplistic conduits, forms and patterns begin to evoke a sense of repeated melancholy. The cells morph into endless rows of suburban houses, one after the other, connected by telephone wires overhead and pipes underground. These utopian symbols of an American ideal that nestles amongst the grids of its towns and cities are linked by its extensive cross-country networks of highways whereby a coercion through geometry exists.
At the same time, Halley began to explore a parallel between his architectural investigation and that of the onset of digitalisation. Although at this point only in its infancy, Halley’s ability to foresee its exponential growth and impact on everyday life gives his work an academic sensibility. The arresting colours of the large-scale ‘Three Sectors’ (1986) where three equally sized rectangular canvases flatly painted from left to right in acrid yellow, DayGlo orange and cherry red and are underpinned by a thin red canvas bisected by a black conduit, could just as easily be an exercise in the seductiveness of the digital advertising in Times Square. But it is ‘White Cell with Conduit’ (1987) that perhaps seems to illustrate Halley’s foreseeing best. A large horizontal rectangle is comprised of a white stucco cell except for a thin DayGlo orange strip on each side. Underneath the canvas, a much thinner red canvas is again bisected horizontally by a thin black conduit. The white expanse is intoxicating. It holds the viewer’s gaze as they move around it, inspecting the physicality of the textured surface; examining the way the light dazzles across its surface like an exploded reduction of a digital screen. And, just like being absorbed by our mobile phones or computer screens, the viewer is at once rendered oblivious to the immediate environment around them. The digital world, says Halley, has the same patterns of control as the architectural world. That the latest iteration sucks the user in seductively through the appearance of being connected and entertained while isolating them is increasingly leading to the disappearance of the experience of heterogeneous public space and, perhaps, imprisonment.