An Accumulation of Small Gestures: An Interview with Richard Haley

June 7, 2012 · Print This Article

There is a bit of the Hopeless Romantic in the art of Richard Haley, as well as humor, depth, and boundless curiosity. His projects initially amuse and then confound, like a dose of sarcasm hiding within utter sincerity, or the strange experience of playing chess against yourself.  Minimalism, land art, conceptual art, and performance all play a role in his practice, but his work stays fresh through his completely heartfelt approach. Whether trying to sink in a row boat at the same rate as the setting sun, moving nothingness from one part of the country to the other, or warming a decaying and forgotten slab of concrete with his own body, Haley’s games evoke a magic circle bound by the quirky dictations of a childlike sense of wonder.

Though he currently lives in metro Detroit, Haley hails from Northern California, and his practice is undeniably rooted in the West coast spirit—the uniquely Bay Area and LA awareness of the land as the frontier’s end. In Haley’s work, the frontier becomes personal. Mundane everyday actions—accumulated small gestures—place him, and often his audience, in the world at a particular moment. These moments are constructed to simultaneously acknowledge humanity while coming to grips with mortality. The deciduous nature of these poetic gestures means they are often missed and must be experienced through concise documentation; otherwise, they could drop off into nothingness.

Recently-recruited B@S Detroit correspondent Tom Friel and I spoke to Haley in his garage-basement-office-home-studio. We began our conversation in front of a work in process: a hole.

Thanks to Tom for collaborating on this interview and crafting this superb introduction!


Richard Haley: I made a mold of a hole within Detroit. For this upcoming exhibition [at ANOTHER YEAR IN LA], the mold will be shipped to Los Angeles and cast using matter foraged locally. Essentially, I’m shipping nothing from one contested place to some other strange place—two strange cities. My work is usually an accumulation of small gestures, and this is a larger gesture. I don’t exactly know what a hole is, and I’m trying to figure that out. It’s a puncture in the land, but it’s not the land itself—it’s not the site. It’s surrounded by the site, but it can’t exist without the site. A hole is almost more like a photograph in that a photograph is not the thing, but it cannot exist without the thing the photograph is of. The hole is the space, it’s not the earth.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Will this be the first and only iteration this project?

RH: Oh, I hope I can have more holes. If I was to think bigger, and I usually tend to think in small bits, Birmingham would be my shipping center of nothingness. It would be nice to have nothingness on two opposite coasts. That would be exciting—to have replications of Detroit nothingness in these other places that are not here.


Tom Friel: Does this project have any relationship to your previous work that addresses mounds and hills?

RH: I hadn’t intentionally made that connection; although, in some way, I suppose it does. To put it sculptural terms, one is a presence and one is an absence, and both with revolve around some type of action that uses futility as a measuring tool. I use acts to address primary ontological questions: doing something that isn’t going to work is an exercise in futility, but the act itself is a way to measure of the nature of being.


SMP: Recently, the Bas Fischer Invitational in Miami described your work as an amalgam of California conceptual and monumental land art; meaning, that your gestures are often solitary, rule-based, and play out within a landscape. It seems to me that you’re very much a maker—of objects and images—as well as a performer. How do you reconcile conceptual and making in your practice?

RH: Well it gets me in trouble. Where I’m from in northern California, and all my teachers came out of the Bay Area figurative or funk movements. They were the students of people like William Wiley, Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown, so that was in the air when I was a student. Everything I did was figurative painting and figurative sculpture. One day, I was in my figurative painting class, and I turned it into a game painting as fast as I could and as quick as I could. Also, I made a great deal of noise and positioned myself next to the people doing the most labor intensive work, which didn’t work out too well. But anyway, I’ve never been a figurative artist—I like to make things, and I make very clumsy things. The way I think relates more to the *white men of the 60s*—the conceptual artists, and my thinking and my making often collide, which that gets me in trouble. I’ll make something that seems very clear and clinical and then I’ll make some strange chairs to sit on and watch the first thing, which completely distracts from the intent of the work. Here’s what it is: I like to make things with my hands, so my work doesn’t always fit into this dematerialized mode. I keep trying to rematerialize my dematerialization.


TF: How do you use images? It’s interesting that when working with the ephemeral you can play with the way that performances and objects exist as objects and as documentation. For example, the piece where you rubbed the grease from your forehead on a particular spot, [RUBBING THE GREASE FROM THE OILY SKIN ON MY FOREHEAD ONTO A DECORATIVE CONCRETE THING AND WAITING FOR THE SETTING SUNLIGHT TO TURN IT GLOWING ORANGE], that piece wouldn’t exist without the photo because, without the documentation, that gesture would remain a minute moment invisible to most people.

RH: I go back and forth: is this an archive, or is this a photograph? I make things that are clearly intended to be one or the other, but then I intentionally confuse even myself… When I made that piece, I was fascinated with Turner and David Ireland. I came across these readings that Turner liked to stare at the sun, and it started getting me thinking about using the sun as a material. David Ireland was interested in these miniature moments like polishing walls or stripping paint, and this fleeting second when the light came through his house and changed everything into this glowing atmosphere. The gesture of rubbing the grease came from a different failed piece where I was trying to work with a reflection of the setting sun over a body of water—I was trying to create that orange stripe. The first piece didn’t go anywhere, so I ended up rubbing my grease to try to make that orange stripe on concrete; essentially, making my own orange glow.

SMP: Can you speak more about your use of landscape and natural phenomena? Do you consider these futile gestures interventions into landscape?

RH: I don’t think of it as intervention, I actually use landscape and the body as a measuring device. In a way, this work relates to the body and performance art of the 60s and 70s. I use the body as a way to measure the landscape instead of using the vastness of the landscape as a way to measure the body. For example, with the piece where I sank the boat at the same rate as the sinking sun, [ATTEMPTING TO SINK WITH THE SETTING SUN], my thought was: how can I make myself as small as possible. Here’s this giant ball of fire in the sky that makes it so we can see, without it we’d have no electromagnetic spectrum. In the piece, I was comparing myself to that, but I don’t know if that actually comes across. It could be that I’ve looked at too many art history books and can’t shake the influence.


RH: In a recent piece, I tried to warm a piece of rubble that I found. I pressed my body against it—cuddling it—while the sun rose so the sun warmed the east side and I warmed the west side. The sun rose that day at 6:48am, so I started at 6:43 and stopped at 7:02 when I thought the sun had risen enough. For the piece, I created a sweatshirt that opens up so I could press my abdomen against the stone, and I cast the impression of my abdomen in latex against the rubble to create “a cuddling” of the thing. During the performance I just sat there still, going back to nothingness for 17-minutes. I didn’t do anything, but my body just happens to produce heat.

SMP: How did you choose that site?

RH: I was out looking for big piles of rubble and this just happened to be a pillar located in a place I wouldn’t be harassed. The site was an empty thing that looked lonely and needed warmth.


SMP: How do you use humor in your practice?

RH: I don’t try to, but I’m often told that my work is funny. For example, when I was making the Black Rainbow piece, I wanted to refer to nothingness. I thought: here’s something you can’t see, that doesn’t exist, so I’ll make a physical object that refers to this non-thing.

TF: But in PORTABLE HOLE PROPOSALwhere you’re falling over and there’s a shovel laying there. There’s darkness, there’s bodily injury… And you didn’t intend for it to be funny?!

SMP: I definitely saw some classic Buster Keaton-era antics in that piece, but slapstick doesn’t preclude criticality…

RH: When I was making it, I wasn’t thinking that it was funny. The first incarnation was just me standing still and recording myself sinking. I realized that if I stood for an hour, I would sink ¼-inch, so I made up the odd logic that if I stood there for a year, I would sink 90-inches into the ground. Two years, 180-inches, and so on. So the piece came about that way and I wasn’t actually thinking about it being funny; although, I can see that the work can be taken as humorous. Even though that is not my intention, I don’t take offense to it. Again, where I grew up, there’s a lot of humor in art. It happens. It just exists. I’m not trying to cultivate it, not trying to deny it, but if I’m making a piece and I don’t show it to anyone for a while, I can be oblivious to it.

Here is one piece I intended to be funny: SMALL MOUNTAINS/LARGE HILLS I PLAN TO PUNCH

TF: I’m curious: with any conceptual work, is it enough to have the plan and the documentation of that plan—the idea to punch a mountain on paper—or do you really have to follow through with the act, or the punch, to fully actualize the piece?

RH: This project exists in three different ways: it exists as a text document; it exists as a cast of the side of the mountain; and it exists as a sequence of documentation of me punching the mountain. Of the three iterations, I settled on the text as the clearest and most concise representation of the piece. The other elements were functioning as an archive and this was more of a diary, an illustration of something that I’m thinking about. I often don’t know what’s right or wrong. Sometimes it’s better to think about it, sometimes it’s better to actually do it, sometimes it’s better to lie about it. Like Lawrence Weiner says: it doesn’t have to be made for the piece to exist. Sometimes they just have to be made in my head.

SMP: I have to ask: how has Detroit affected your practice?

RH: We, [Haley and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Anderson, who teaches in the Department of Theater and Dance at Wayne State University], came here in 2009, and we were planning to live in downtown Detroit but ended up here a bit further north. Yes, Detroit’s a consideration, it’s hard for it not to be a consideration. First, there’s always the shock. I had never even been to the Midwest, so first there’s the shock of the Midwest, then there’s the shock of Detroit, the shock of the suburbs, and the real tension between. I try to not deal with it, but then I keep making art that does deal with it. For example, I organized a show that only existed on line for a few months where I salvaged charcoal from burned houses and mailed the charred bits to friends around the country so they could make work with it—drawing with it or whatever. I don’t like to use the word “ruin porn,” (I really hate that term!), but at the same time, you can’t not look at it. The landscape of Detroit, it’s almost like it casts a spell on you—you begin to think of all these fantastic scenarios of what happened in these now blighted sites. You can’t escape it.


RH: Right now, I’ve been enamored by these places outside of Detroit where I keep having what my wife likes to call “Snow White moments,” where you’re out walking and suddenly you’re just surrounded by animals. We were in one of the parks the other day and within something like 100-ft we encountered deer, wild turkeys, these weird furry egret things that eat out of the sand, and then our favorite thing: groundhogs, which I refer to as fur pigs. They look like little fat things that wear sweat suits. You can have that, but Detroit exists at the same time, and they clearly inform each other—each makes the other more powerful. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and I couldn’t have the Snow White moments without certain parts of Detroit being what they are.

Richard Haley will be featured in an upcoming solo exhibition, Holes, Voids, and Other Descriptive Terms for Blankness, at ANOTHER YEAR IN LA, in the Pacific Design Center.

Tom Friel relocated from Philadelphia to Detroit in 2009 to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he earned an MFA in Sculpture in 2011. Tom can frequently be spotted playing restaurant slave and art museum admissions stooge, but ultimately, this artist-writer-educator is most comfortable in the lion costume that has become integral to his recent video and performance work. Tom will be taking over the Detroit B@S beat when I segue into retirement at the end of this month, so y’all can look forward to seeing more of his work as of July!