Well, really it started with snapshots. There was the truck, but there was also Wyoming. In Wyoming, a young Hayward watched red ants bring beads up from deep within the earth—from old burial sites. It was how the earth fused past and present, he noted. Then there was fourth grade art class. Hayward smushed a paintbrush onto paper, watched the bristles splay out, rapt at the potential that lay before him. A humorless art teacher snapped him back to reality— “You’re going to ruin that brush!”
Hayward doesn’t operate in a world where the tools of art—pieces of art themselves—are subject to ruin. After all “to ruin” suggests someone is there to impose on these instruments, to do the alleged ruining. When Hayward creates, he steps aside. Hayward sets the world in motion like the deist god who winds the clock, but where it will go from there is anyone’s guess. Stepping out of the way, however, may be the most challenging artistic task of all.
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Last week Hayward appeared at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho with Laura Isaacman, editor of The Coffin Factory magazine, to discuss his full-length film Asphalt, Muscle and Bone. Isaacman’s interest in Hayward’s work was sparked by a collaboration she witnessed between Hayward and the writer Justin Taylor. Isaacman then began “stalking” the eccentric Hayward—who humored her inquiries—hanging around his studio and digging through old suitcases, looking for anything that might lend some insight into the enigmatic artist and that nagging question of inspiration.
Isaacman, perhaps naively, wanted a linear tale of inspiration, a trajectory from “then” to “now,” but from there things only got less lucid.
After living in 17 states with his older, snake-wrangling sister, who instilled in him a sense of adventure and a hunger for possibility, Hayward got his start in photographic portraiture. As Hayward took the conventional, staid position of photographer behind the lens, enacting his vision on the subject, he felt something was incredibly wrong; he couldn’t get something Kierkegaard once said out of his head.
“He said the advent of photography would make everyone look the same,” explains Hayward. “I decided it was time to mess around, to disrupt.” He began slicing up and rearranging faces—the effect was a cubistic uncanny valley, equal parts creepy and beautiful (the resulting images managed a certain uneasy symmetry, which we are unconsciously conditioned as viewers to believe denotes the utmost beauty).
It also occurred to Hayward that around this time there had been a “gross imbalance of testosterone” in the world for the past three- to four-thousand years. He became fixated on dance, believing dance emphasized the female figure in a position of power, one contrary to the traditional view of women.
“Nobody here didn’t come out of a vagina,” announces Hayward to the crowd, “but everybody’s running from it. We won’t talk about it. We have to talk about vaginas in a positive way. We have to talk about death and vaginas in a positive way.“
“Throw out everything you’re comfortable with,” he adds. “Give yourself permission.”
Hayward made it his mission to reinvent portraiture, to transform it from something unfulfilling and subjugating to a process of the “collaborative self.” (At least this is his explanation for those who demand a narrative, who cannot wrap their minds around the disjointedness of inspiration and creation as they infiltrate our lives, only to abandon us just as quickly as the canvas has been primed.)
Hayward would bring in his “subjects“ for a conversation and together they’d wait for something, anything. That “something” was removed from judgment and from planning. It was full of risk. It usually took about 15 minutes to get the ball rolling, to strip away the inhibitions of daily life and proper conduct.
People tore off their clothing, dipped their hands in paint and stood there, exposed, dripping onto canvases. If it sounds less than earth-shattering to you, wait until you see Hayward’s shots. The man behind the camera disappears, the image yanks you in—it demands your unwavering complicity. You feel as though you’ve just witnessed a crime of passion you yourself perhaps committed. I feel like a traitor calling them “Hayward’s shots” at all, as though I’ve gravely missed the point.
When it was Willem Dafoe’s turn, he created a series of large, oversized, crudely-drawn mother figures. In Hayward’s photos, Dafoe cowers below them, as though being birthed from the pages. “Oedipal” springs to mind.
Don’t ask Hayward what he’s trying to accomplish. He quotes Francis Bacon: “If I knew what I was doing, why would I do it?” He says Asphalt, Muscle and Bone encapsulates “risk-taking and how women have been written off” as well as the “impossibility of love” as he flips through projected film stills, he knows he only wants to see things he’s never seen, but that’s about all he knows.
Members of the audience shift in their seats, they seem uneasy about this “impossibility of love” notion. Hayward feels under no pressure to address the crowd for long, quiet stretches. A man breaks the silence: “Can you expand on the impossibility of love?”
The way we’re introduced to love is completely erroneous, offers Hayward. We have to break it down before we can build it up.
“All of these may or may not be in the film,” Hayward explains cryptically as he shows us film stills of mythical places like the Fat River Hotel and the conceptual Museum of Emotions. You cannot physically enter into Hayward’s museum or his hotel, all the rooms are made up, but you can purchase postcards, postcards which look as though they were pulled from the very ancient burial grounds themselves. And in order to reach these places, you must first yourself get lost.
In his presentation, as in his work, Hayward appears to withdraw into a strange, removed place within himself only to reemerge and confront us with the unseen, the whimsically gritty and eerie. Is this work erotic? Nudes reappear in the stills on several occasions, in hotel rooms, often in compromising poses, seemingly torturing each other or wrapping their teeth around strings of pearls. We almost feel guilty asking ourselves. What is eroticism anymore? Would it offend Hayward if we were to ask? No one does; they’re hung up on the love question. They’re still obsessed by the idea of inspiration.
Hayward says it took a long process of elimination to get to where he is now, artistically-speaking—a lifetime of risk-taking. His life parallels the canvas he describes—a “blank” canvas is not truly a blank canvas, it’s a series of cliches which must be painstakingly scraped away.
Throughout the process, Hayward always felt that push of something being wrong though. It was the impetus to move forward, the force that kept him going. “I feel at ease now,” he says.
In the art of the world around him, Hayward will settle for no less than the standards to which he holds himself. “You can’t short-circuit experience,” he says. Art cannot and should not be commodified. “You won’t find yourself online, on Instagram.” The crowd titters, guiltily. “You won’t find Paris in Disneyland.”
Alissa Fleck is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in the Huffington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Our Town Downtown, on Narrative.ly and more. She cares deeply about LGBT issues and has a piece on the subject forthcoming on Truthout.org.