Joseph Hart

Joseph Hart in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

Joseph Hart: I grew up in New Hampshire (northeast part of the States), in a town called Peterborough. I had some natural drawing ability as a child and loved making things. My family and teachers were encouraging. I stuck with it. I was also a shape shifter: a high school art department kid, decent athlete and a skate rat. I turned down opportunities to play college soccer and basketball to go to art school.

I graduated from RISD, moved to NYC, got an office job that I stayed at for nearly 10 years and started adjunct teaching-all while further developing as an artist and making work. It’s challenging but I’m now able to cobble together a living through art sales, teaching and a very supportive community. I’m also an involved and dedicated parent. I have two kids who have been incredibly influential in terms of how I make and think about my work.

Concurrent with my studio practice, I independently produce an oral history project and podcast called Deep Color. I record long-form conversations with artists in their studios about the process, experiences and people behind their artwork. It’s an incredibly fulfilling project and a solid resource for anyone interested in how artists work and think. I imagine it’s similar for you, Steve, with Hunted Projects.

SC: I am curious if you have a specific daily working routine? Do you have any morning rituals or habits that contribute towards a productive day within the studio?

JH: I’m at my best after a decent night’s rest (elusive), having eaten well and exercised (running) throughout the week. I’ll often use the first 30min in studio doing semi-mindless chores like sweeping the floor, or cleaning brushes. I’ll also put together mellow “to-do” lists and loosen up by making small drawings before jumping into larger stuff. Taking a beat and starting slow is important. I’ll also acknowledge that on certain days I need to jump in and attack.

The front half of my workday is when I’m thinking most clearly and confidently, so I keep things distraction free—no audio or screens. When preparatory tasks need to happen like building stretcher frames or mounting paper to linen, I’ll put on a record or something to fill the void.

SC: To what extent do you consider New York City an influential factor in the shaping of your work? Do you feel that your surroundings have influenced you in one way or another?

JH: I’m a fairly open person--place and context certainly affects me. I’m not overtly painting depictions of what I see but the anxiety, grime, challenge, density, contradiction, beauty and possibility of NYC definitely creep into my work.

SC: I find the constant buzz of NYC really energizing; do you feel as equally motivated and stimulated working outside of NYC? Say, if doing a residency in a slower and more remote location/environment?

JH: I basically haven’t made work outside of NYC for the past 18 years, so I really don’t have a point of comparison. I’d love, LOVE, an opportunity to set up a studio somewhere more isolated. NYC is full of amazing culture and options but it can be overwhelming. Finding a suitable pace to navigate it all is a muscle I’m constantly working on. NYC is a bipolar place—it’s the best and worst of everything.

SC: How would you describe your own works?

JH: I make non-representational paintings and drawings. Some works are colorful; others are black and white and more severe. I use a variety of collage and assemblage techniques to realize them. I’ve always had more fun  “constructing” a painting over “painting” a painting.

I think about visual harmony while I’m making my work, composition and balance—what’s pleasing to look at and why. I’m also always looking for ways to be more autonomous in my work and ways to get my brain out of the way. The act of over-thinking is arguably my biggest obstacle. It can be paralyzing. I find that learning how to be free in my paintings helps me be freer in my life, too. This exchange is an important one for me.

SC: In your work, there tends to be an ensemble of scratchy gestural marks that seem to have been made whilst in an improvisational trance. These marks, which predominantly take the form of skewed ‘S’s and ‘C’s, appear energized, frantic, and responsive to other marks present.

What I find fascinating is how your mark making could relate to ‘Hogarth’s Curve’, a concept that William Hogarth conceived of which suggests that S-curved lines, or serpentine lines, signify liveliness or action and how they excite the attention of a viewer.

Can you discuss your process of mark making, and your thoughts surrounding Hogarth’s concept of the line of beauty?

JH: A while back I stumbled upon a text Hogarth wrote called “The Analysis of Beauty”. I haven’t read it all but he argues that in aesthetics, curved forms and lines represent life, while straight lines and boxes signify death. Not ground breaking stuff but I can identify with his argument.

It’s a physical thing for me, too. All those loose gestural marks in my work feel really good to make. I use my reach (I’m tall) and draw from my shoulder, elbow and wrist. Some of them are automatic and improvised, some more deliberate. I’m hesitant to say I’m in a trance—I let go but I’m not absent. Those marks are a form of release and in pursuit of that sense of freedom I mentioned earlier.

I also used Hogarth’s philosophy as a casual thesis to organize a group show at Halsey McKay Gallery, recently. The title of the show was “Hog’s Curve”.

SC: The layering in your work is also important, for the layers allude to depths of investigation and the passing of time that occurs whilst in the studio. I am interested to discuss your process of collaging, and to what extent you find it vital to achieve a sense of harmony?

JH: The layers are mostly the byproduct of my semi-manic search for the evasive visual harmony and autonomy I’m chasing. Using collage and assemblage facilitates more formal and material surprises in my experience. It’s also a very flexible way to work. I can move pieces around, sometimes for months, before committing. This is also a curse.

SC: I consider studios to be the equivalent of private sanctuaries or laboratories, though they are hugely fascinating spaces to outsiders. Could you please tell me about your studio? Is your studio one that you have been working from for a long time?

JH: My studio is indeed a sacred space and a place of paradox. On one hand, it’s a workspace, where I get the job of making art done. On the other hand, it’s a space where I attempt to reconcile all of life’s woes, create more problems for myself, get completely frustrated and lost in the absurdity of it all only to find my footing again. A significant part of making art for me is personal discovery and self-care. My studio incubates it all.

My space is in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, in a big, charmless and dingy industrial building. My studio floor is the primary work surface, the walls second. I have some tables and storage racks, an old surfboard and bike, tools and art from my kids. The space shuffles between being cluttered and crazy, to more organized and peaceful. I have a big window that looks into the building’s shaft-way. I once watched a hawk catch and rip apart a pigeon from my window.

SC: I am interested to know how you plan your works. Do you begin with preparatory sketches of some form, or do you prefer to work in a fully improvised manner?

JH: It’s mostly improvised and responsive. Sometimes I use small drawings as reference but it’s never one to one. Most days I try to thread the needle between having a plan and winging it. I’m a believer in the power and honesty of the original gesture and what can be born out of that. Trying to replicate, or scale up my moves rarely works for me.

Lately, I’ve been photographing works in progress that are giving me trouble and playing around with them in Photoshop. It’s an efficient way for me to find solutions without completely wrecking the thing I’ve invested so much time and labor in.

SC: I am interested in the notion of preciousness and at what stage you would choose to discard a painting in the studio. To you, what determines a successful or failed painting, and do you have a tendency to destroy failed or overworked paintings?

JH: A successful painting is one that no longer bothers me to look at or think about. It needs to be landing and cutting in all the right ways and look fucking good. It needs to make me want to come back and make more paintings. A failing painting keeps me up at night and makes me an insufferable person to be around. To be clear, this is how I judge my own work--not other people’s work. I destroy paintings; sure, though for the way I work, I’m able to repurpose them into new works. Much of it is based in practicality. If a painting has been kicking around for 10 years, feels outdated and dead with no future, I’ll re-work or scrap it.

SC: Focusing on the titling of your works, how do you choose your titles? Do you feel that a title has the potential to alter a works interpretation?

JH: Words have specific meaning, so of course titles will affect interpretation. Titles have always been secondary for me, though I’m re-evaluating this. I use them mostly for utility--a way to catalogue what I release from my studio. I keep a written list of possible titles on my wall. Blips from things I’ve read or heard, interesting word combinations and so on. A friend of mine used to title all his work with whatever the default ID JPEG number that got assigned when he downloaded images off his camera. I love this.

SC: What projects/works are currently in progress in your studio?  Are you preparing for any specific future shows?

JH: I’m in the midst of making a series of new paintings and drawings, some of which will head to Expo Chicago while others will go towards a solo exhibition in San Francisco this Fall—both through Romer Young Gallery.

I have a couple out of the ordinary projects on the horizon, too. I’m collaborating with a Danish design company called Normann—we are making a set of tabletop vessels that will have my artwork on them. Last, I’m working on a skateboard graphic for an independent company based in Philadelphia, called Spectrum. My daughter is going to help with this project, which I’m thrilled about.

Outside of my studio, I’m programming out the next handful of Deep Color recordings. I’m also getting ready to release a printed catalogue for “Hog’s Curve”, the group show I curated at HMG. I’m really proud of how it all came together. Please seek out a copy and order online!

SC: Lets go back and speak about your oral history project, Deep Color. Your interviews are great. I am really into what you do and how good you are at making the listener feel like they are in the same room during your interviews. Perhaps you could tell me more about Deep Color? When did this project begin? What inspired you to start this project? Where do you see it going?

JH: I launched Deep Color in 2016. I wanted to try something unfamiliar and more collaborative, and work on a non-object based project that would have a reach that was different than a static work of art. Fundamentally, DC is an extension of my belief that one of the main functions of art is to share ideas and knowledge. DC is also a simple collision of my interests: I love studio visits and talking directly with other artists, teaching, understanding how something is made and learning by hearing other people’s stories. The response from listeners has been incredible and I’m beyond grateful for this.

Wading into the mystery of art is entirely fascinating, too. I read a great quote by the American playwright, Thornton Wilder recently: “Art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time”. DC pursues this card trick in some aspects, too.

I’m busy with multiple projects, though I’m trying to figure out ways to be more organized, prolific and wise with DC. I’m writing a proper mission statement and researching grant opportunities. My goal is to figure out a smart, non-annoying way to sustain it.

SC: In relation to social media and more specifically Instagram, what are your thoughts on this as a platform to engage with new audiences? Do you have a love/hate relationship with Instagram or other online social media platforms?

JH: Social media is powerful and fucked. I find the attention economy mostly dubious. I’m casually on Instagram for the obvious reasons: it’s good for showing off, creating awareness about our work and seeing a version of things remotely. It’s a terrible replacement for experiencing art in person. I also don’t think the amount of “likes” a work of art gets is an accurate measure for it’s success. Insta is not going to help us become healthier, more satisfied artists. Give me a sunset with family and friends in a violence-free (all forms) world and we can all throw our phones in the river.

Joseph Hart

Images courtesy of Joseph HartHalsey McKay Gallery and Romer Young Gallery.