Excerpts from PRIMAL INSTINCTS: THE ART OF JAMES HAVARD
Written by Julie Sasse, Chief Curator
and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Tucson Museum of Art
James Havard’s psychologically complex paintings and sculptures draw from a vast garden of visual delights, which places him in the company of artists from Paul Gauguin to Joseph Beuys, whose works rely on the unabashed mining of ancient cultural sources and outsider influences. A master colorist, manipulator of paint, and conjuror of images and associations, Havard skillfully melds styles, cultures, eras, and emotive states of being into extraordinary works of art. But while he is keenly aware of the visual references at his disposal, it is the intuitive, primordial origins of his being that he most successfully engages. His awareness of the power of such primacy, and his ability to tap into it, has roots in more than one hundred years of artistic inquiry.
To contextualize Havard’s art in this continuum, consider Paul Gauguin’s fascination with the culture of Tahiti and the term “primitivism,” as defined by French art historians in the late 1800s. By the turn of the century, other artists, including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, were incorporating forms inspired by African and Oceanic masks. Later, Paul Klee, Adolph Gottlieb, and Max Ernst reflected so-called primitive influences in their art. By the mid-1940s, Jean Dubuffet looked to outsider and tribal art, writing a manifesto in 1945 that expounded on the virtues of “crude art” over “cultural art” and he championed art made by the unschooled. Such artistic awareness has inspired countless contemporary artists such as Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, and Joseph Beuys, who looked to the unending visual material available from cultures across the globe, eras throughout time, and sources that challenge the very notion of fine art.
Havard’s work, however, is not simply an artistic homage to art historical and ethnographic sources. Enriching his exuberant and skillful works are multiple layers: a rich personal biography, a passion for collecting, a wry sense of humor, an innate understanding of psychological drama, and an undeniable artistic sophistication. His ebullient use of color, aggressive mark making, emotionally charged figures, and cryptic text place his works firmly in a contemporary context. His primal instincts, coupled with intellectual acumen and artistic virtuosity, have produced a serious and significant body of work produced over the last four decades.
Havard’s work in the early 1990s defies easy categorization because of the plethora of visual and iconographic references employed. Figuration and assimilation of ideas are crucial to the success of these works, and Havard’s interest in early American furniture and so-called naïve art become equally important. For example, Havard’s “Attributed to American School” of 1991 is reminiscent of a well-used blackboard. The deep black background of this vertical painting is rubbed with white in a telltale effect of erased chalk, and the erratic lines drawn in white oil pastel reinforce the feeling of a childhood lesson gone awry. Centered in the composition is a portrait of a standing woman staring self-consciously as she plucks a rose from a wreath. Above her, the words “American School” underscore black and white reproductions of portraits from the same era with an ominous white cross nearby. Small, crudely rendered marks appear throughout the whole painting, and other than a small primitive eye and infinity symbol on a strip at the bottom, the majority of the canvas is uncharacteristically simplified. Havard unleashes his artistic fury only at the top of the painting, where broad, aggressive applications of white paint smeared with blood red are dissected by a red stick figure that holds a phallic gold spear.
African art, Aztec and Maya artifacts, Mimbres culture, and American School images and appropriations are sometimes intermixed, depending on the serendipity of the moment. In “A.H. Mexico” from 1993, for example, a black and white reproduction of an Olmec figure from Mexico holds court near a large dark spiral, thick application of yellow ochre paint, and fabric collage in a small archival box. African references occur in this piece as well. In an untitled box from 1993, a cutout shape resembling a spear is wrapped in white fabric and a loosely rendered line drawing of a four-legged animal is flanked by reproductions of African sculpture on the left and a reproduction of an Aztec carving of a warrior figure on the right. Havard’s ability to mix cultures, eras, media, and techniques lies in his keen eye for juxtaposing shapes, colors, and textures. These energized investigations are statements about the rich tapestry of cultural history and Havard’s lively interest in it.
In a 1996 Artspeak review, Ed McCormick discusses Havard’s panache for uniting poetic devices with aggressive visual marks:
Havard’s new paintings are among the most funky in their brash merging of images, objects, and powerhouse painterly pyrotechnics. He is, without doubt, one of our most dazzling exponents of in-your-face assemblage painting, combining fetishistic found objects with primitivistic figurative references, private symbols, and all manner of vigorous mark making strategies to create large compositions that amount to smashing visual/tactile feasts.
Havard’s love of the physicality of paint was ever-present in his paintings at that time, manifested in prominent painterly passages and striking color compositions.
Seeking new media to suit his latest artistic direction, Havard began to work with encaustic – a wax, pigment, and resin combination that is rapidly applied onto a painting surface. This material added to the textural qualities of his paint surface and allowed him to incise, gouge, and carve into the paint with the use of screwdrivers. He also switched from acrylic paint to oil paint – often working directly with his fingers and the ends of paint brushes. The resulting new work shows an even more deliberate use of figuration. In “Agnes” from 1997, for example, Havard renders a crude standing figure (coincidentally his aunt) in white paint and acid green. One leg sports multicolored stripes and a green rubber boot, while the other leg is a mere slash of white. Her eyes are vacant and incised into the white paint, as are her full lips and nose. A red brimmed hat cheers up the otherwise morose-looking personage; its rudimentary limbs are hardly able to hold a red bucket dangling from spidery fingers. In the deep, dark greens of the horizon-less background, a small incongruous pink plant marks the ground line. Floating in the upper left, a white outline of a pitched roof house and a childlike tree speak of comforting domesticity in the otherwise spooky scene. With so many non-threatening clues peppered throughout the eerie work, essentially one is left with a strange sense of familiarity in tension with impending doom.
Havard’s connection to the work of Dubuffet is evident. Dubuffet coined the term “Art Brut” (also called “Crude Art”) in 1945 after he began to collect the work of children, untrained artists, the “primitive,” and the insane. He found like-minded artists, including Michel Tapie, who coined the term “Art Informel” (“Formless Art”), and surrealist Andrew Breton, both of whom were fascinated with the spontaneity of such works. Together they formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in June 1948 to manage the collection of artifacts and to promote an exhibition of works by professional artists working with similar tendencies. Dubuffet believed that art had become pretentious and preferred to champion work that was untouched by artistic culture. His nudes, animals, faces, and groups of people were enlivened by the rawness of heavily layered and granulated impastoed paint, and childlike incised lines, applied with what Peter Schjeldahl called a “slash and burn nonchalance aiming through exaggerated provocation to trigger delight.” Later, in 1972, British writer Roger Cardinal coined the term “Outsider Art” as an English equivalent to Dubuffet’s Art Brut. The instinctual and intentionally unsophisticated nature of Dubuffet’s art and Art Brut in general was well suited for Havard’s exhilarating, yet ferocious approach to paint.
Confident in his ability to pull from disparate sources, Havard greatly expanded his thematic repertoire in the late 1990s to include fly fishermen, gardeners, and salsa dancers. These paintings were placed in weathered, ornate frames found at junk stores and estate sales. They create a sharp contrast to the rawness of the subject matter, yet somehow added to their patina and intrigue. Another new development in his compositions concerned the interaction between two figures and figures within landscapes, territory he had not treated in previous works. In the large-scale “Garden Guardians” of 1997, for example, two crudely rendered figures, each wearing brimmed hats, face each other with arms outstretched. By the roughness of their execution, the viewer is left pondering whether the figures are in violent interaction or reaching to each other in friendly greeting. To the lower left, a few scratches of line indicate a woman smoking a cigarette and passively watching the other two. Gone are the squirts and squiggles and chaotic layering of gestural paint seen in other early works. However, Havard retains the curious placement of random numbers near a gridded box, scratched into the surface of the dark paint. These numbers, while not signifying anything in particular, elicit a certain sense of magic, like a spell that begs deciphering. With his utterly seductive ability to manipulate paint, Havard creates a kind of dark magic, a surrealistic mood with the artist in full control.
Likening Havard’s work to Jean-Michel Basquiat (the noted graffiti artist who rose to brief stardom in 1982 before his untimely death six years later), critic Tony Cavanaugh remarks that the two artists share only the crude simplicity of the rendering of their figures. However, Cavanaugh heralds Havard’s rich surface textures, tactile sensuality, and a luminosity that Basquiat’s work does not embody:
Havard’s figures are raw and elemental. In their utter nakedness of guile and anatomical economy they resemble the works of very young children, albeit with an innate sophistication that can only belong to a mature artist in complete control of his powers. They are literally “paint people,” pulled as if by an act of enormous will from the properties of the pigment itself.”
These “paint people” dominate the picture plane; they are no longer elements in a pastiches of collaged references to the figure – they are the composition. Havard under paints many of these works with a light buff yellow color. Then he applies a thick layer of dark, tar-like paint, which enables him to scrape into the dense surface to create emphatic, urgent lines. In “Fly Fisherwoman with Admirer” from 1996, Havard positions his green-haired, red-lipped angler to the right, casting her line outside of the picture plane. In the simplest of scratched lines, a small face in profile emerges from the dark void, rendered insignificant by the reduction of his shape and the intensity of her actions and brilliance of her coloration. One cannot help but wonder if the artist is making a statement about the doers and the watchers in the world – a commentary about those whose presence commands attention and dominates the passive other.
One of the most overt examples of Havard’s new economy of form can be seen in “Mboye Statue” of 1996, a small, highly-textured painting in wax and oil set in a heavily ornate, floral painted frame. Arms outstretched as if reaching for something to the right of the canvas, an elongated black figure with a gasping red mouth and tiny white eyes stares alarmingly at the viewer. Placed cropped at the head in a deep, blood-red background, the figure recalls Dubuffet’s oil on board works from the early 1950s as much as Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo’s iconic figures. Equally powerful is “Red Couple” of 1996. In this work, two standing figures, fully occupying the canvas, face each other with an intensity that is palpable. Neither figure is rendered in red (in fact, the female, made up of simple white lines, is hardly delineated at all). Belying the paintings title, they occupy a brilliant space that speaks of passion and vitality. The male figure is the protagonist in this seductive dance between lovers; wearing a brimmed hat rendered in dark line and incising, he is heavily impastoed in multiple colors. His intent stare and strong hand grasping the head of his partner, along with his clearly demarked penis, make a strong statement about the erotic action to take place.
Havard also executed portraits that fill the canvas – heavily textured faces that recall the great French painter Georges Rouault in violent collision with outsider art. “Yellow Mask” of 1996 is one of the first such portraits. In this work, a luscious yellow face dominates the full composition. Due in part to the ferocious look on the highly textured face in an acrid yellow-green, this work is one of the most ominous paintings at that time. The eyes, made up of blood-red incised rings which reveal the under painting deep black/green, look out intently at the viewer. The red lips of this masked figure suggest an eerie, flesh-eating monster; a slight flick of the brush at the upper left creates a devil horn that further reinforces the sinister overtones of the composition. But negative energy is merely an emotional plaything for Havard. While one might think the artist is exorcising his own demons in such works, he is more likely delighting in the psychological drama that he conjures with a limited palette and paint handling. Just as easily, the artist elicits a contradictory sinister yet sentimental portrait in “Dogon-Family Portrait” of 1996 with the innocent simplicity of a few scratched lines and expressive colorful applications of paint. The dominant figure in this grouping of three is the first clue that one reading of this is impossible. Its green face (with bared teeth and a large dark ‘x’ mark) suggests a tribal grasshopper; and its beady little white eyes, staring curiously at the viewer, inspire doubt about the sentimental nature of the familial grouping. Viewers are buffeted by contrary responses: Is it good or evil they are witnessing? Only the artist knows, but clearly he is entertaining himself and reveling in the sheer joy and freedom of paint and subject.
Occasionally, Havard embraces somber tones while exalting in pastels and brilliant colors. In an apparent commentary on “chromophobia” (a fear the artist has never suffered), he created “Being Afraid of Colored Squares” of 2001. In this medium-sized work, a charred-black figure, floating in a brilliant yellow domain, arches back. In the upper-right-hand corner, a grid of expressive pastel squares plays off the figure’s gaping mouth, creating a strange tension of color and image – a playful revelation of the artist’s wry sense of humor. Obviously, Havard does not box himself in to one palette, style, or theme. Each piece reacts to another. He visits, then departs from, heavy impasto, lightly applied monotypes, heavy incising, crude articulation of form, and references to a primitive past – then revisits them in new combinations.
Beginning in 2002, Havard, ever the restless experimenter, created a new challenge for himself – sculptural form. Using water-based clay and casting the forms in Hydrostone, he has been making one of a kind three-dimensional works that are painted, flocked, covered in wax, sheathed in fabric, and slapped with expressive dollops of paint. These roughly formed shapes seem to cry out with a quiet, primordial urgency, seemingly silenced in their apparent agony – adding yet another layer of intrigue to Havard’s already compelling works. Defying the warnings of others that sculpture is difficult territory, Havard created “Garden Guardians” of 2002, a Hydrostone figure covered in mattress ticking, wax, and paint. The thick layer of wax enshrouds the image, and inky, smeared black paint crudely highlights the eyes and mouth, in keeping with the rough articulations of his painted figures. This imploring figure is loosely slathered in white paint on its torso and forehead – the waxy surface dripping down. AS if to spite the doubters in his artistic circle, he painted the word “back” on the back of the piece, a playful reference to their fears that he could not work in three dimensions.
Throughout his long and illustrious career, James Havard has consistently exhibited a tenacity of spirit and curiosity, refusing to fall into a stylistic groove or single-minded definition of his art. When so many artists who have come before him have been content to ride the wave of financial and critical success without taking risks for the sake of discovery, it is even more remarkable that Havard continues to seek new paths on his artistic journey. In 2006 he is embarking on yet another transition that will surely result in changes in his art. Selling his house and studio to move to a studio loft, he will give up his beloved garden and beautiful home. This decision appears to be liberating. Freed from his obligations to domesticity, he will not be able to devote his full attention to art and travel. In one sense, he is returning to familiar territory. For more than forty years, he has dipped into the well of artistic inspiration. From a background of working in traditional realism, he has evolved to high-brow minimalist works in resin to elegant mixed-media abstract canvases, boxes, and boards, to expressive oil and encaustic works, to his latest exuberant paintings and sculpture. In all of these artistic manifestations, Havard has shown a primal sense of joy in color, texture, and form – with the intellectual acumen to make sense of it all.