Glass Boxes

Essay by Stephen Westfall

For over thirty years James Hyde's work has served as a model for how you can be formally rigorous and funny at the same time. Or rather, it has served up many models. After all, the creation and promulgation of the model, and by logic its modular extensions, is one of the chief operations in his work. And let's be clear - his work is funny, with a humor that depends on formal clarity (the better to expose formal ambiguities, my dear), but it is not "about" being funny, per se. It's more about a philosophical and perceptual tension between an ideal and its surrogate, in this case, Painting and the model that Hyde seeks to replace it with. Hyde's post-Minimal golems raise questions about the nature of painting: What is it? What imparts its aura? What distinguishes it from sculpture? When does it become sculpture? And where does the border between the two lose its distinction and, even, purpose? I suppose Judd did this, too, but Judd isn't as funny as Hyde, he's too pristine. It's as though Hyde's far shaggier materials and their jerry-rigged protestations against gravity (the wall provides support, but sometimes just barely) aspire to Judd's purity of form, but their lowly origins and lack of schooling give them away. The fun lies in their self-betrayal.

As it is for Judd, the rectangle is the basic frame and figure for nearly everything Hyde does: as an image, or the basic unit of imagery. The rectangle is a form that says "painting" and more specifically, "abstract painting." It also says, "brick" and "dumb, empty sign." Its ubiquity as the prime unit of the grid, the footprint of a building, a unit of exchange, insures an inexhaustible latency of images within its borders. Hyde works to see how he can fill that expectation with something that identifies itself as something "other" than painting and watch how it becomes painting in the process. His inaugural piece for Solvent Space was a gigantic pillow form that became a ground for painting, like a stuffed canvas on its back.

In the exhibition at hand, Hyde offers several of his near magical "glassworks," glass cases that lean against the wall and enclose suspended arabesques in combinations of paint strokes, wood, paper, and tape. The interior volume literalizes the illusionary space of flat painting and reveals every material gesture to be something concrete. You would think that such constructions run the risk of being too literal, like an obvious perceptual pun, but they retain a breathtaking sense of action and precarious balance. The glass case, mimicking proportions of a full body, torso, and head is an ingenious format for combining transparency with material density and a sense of danger. We don't just wonder at how they are made, but also at how they are moved. They address us as both sculpture and painting with a degree of integration that doesn't seem possible until you see them.

Stephen Westfall, 2007, Artist and Art Critic, Brooklyn, New York