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On Painting Men, Embracing Social Media, and Rediscovering L.A.

A Studio Visit with Hayley Quentin ('08)

Born in Los Angeles, Hayley Quentin studied at Otis College of Art and Design, where she received a BFA with Honors in 2008. She spent the next seven years living and working in Europe, mainly in the UK and France. In 2016 Hayley returned to Los Angeles, where she currently resides and works, both as faculty at the Brentwood Art Center and as a practicing artist at her studio in Inglewood.

Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to make art?

A: I always knew that I wanted to be an artist or do something with art. I was always drawing, and I was always drawing people. Even as young as kindergarten, I have these memories of just looking at things, cartoons, anything, that lead to realizations about art. I remember watching The Jungle Book, and while looking at the panther walking I could see its shoulder blades. I thought, “Wow, people have shoulders.” So I started drawing people with shoulder blades. Even as a really young person, I just was looking at things, but I was making conclusions and understanding form and representation. I have lots of memories like this—looking at something and relating it to drawing. I just knew it was the thing for me.

Loop #1 by Hayley Quentin 2017 40 x 30in, oil on canvas

Loop #1, 2017 40 x 30in, oil on canvas

What do you think is a common misperception about being an artist?

I think there are probably a lot of stereotypes about artists that might be true for some people that might not be true for me. For instance, if you have an artist’s model or that if you work from figures (as I do), that you have romantic relationships with your subjects.

[Being an artist is] something you have in you. It’s who you are as a person and you make things that are about your own ideas, views of the world. It feels like you have to get them out, you have to create them. But the other side of creating is just very practical. This magical inspiration stuff, I don’t really think it’s true, or more like it’s rare and unreliable. You won’t consistently make anything that way, waiting for elusive inspiration. You just have to do it.

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Electronic Brain #4, 2016 12x16in, oil on paper

Okay, and your subject matter, why men?

I love the human body. There is nothing more beautiful and terrifying and dangerous and sublime than the figure. This is true both for my purely personal aesthetic reasons but also true throughout art history—so much work has been made on the subject of the body. It also seems so important to me to be able to represent male beauty, masculinity, and eroticism, in art from a woman’s perspective.

The female gaze is becoming more talked about, but often that’s reflected right back onto women. Women are allowed to look as long as they are only looking at other women or themselves, right? I don’t really see how this breaks out of any ideas that Berger set up ages ago, but somehow it’s lauded as this new great thing. I know that might sound a bit flippant, but any time you see representations of men, those representations are pretty much always reduced to homoeroticism. Now, that is also a necessary viewpoint, however, both of the above options do not include my view as an artist: a woman looking at men. I am the artist who created this work; hello, I’m right here, I’m a woman and I created this painting of men. It was mind boggling to hear that these paintings that came from a woman’s hand could only be a representation of homoeroticism. It didn’t make any sense to me. Where was my voice? Why was my voice being erased? I’m very interested in representing this sort of more feminine side of men. Even with my work being quite passive and non-confrontational and objectively beautiful, meaning it’s easy to look at, it still challenges people a lot, simply for its subject. It makes people uncomfortable.

I still get questions of “Why don’t you paint women?” or “How does your husband feel about your paintings of men?” Questions that would never be asked to artists painting women, which is frustrating, but also shows that it’s a type of work that needs to be made.

What work inspires you right now?

Women who paint men! Elizabeth Peyton, I love her work. She was my idol when I was at Otis. When I finally saw her work for the first time in person, seeing the way that she painted, it was incredible. You know as an artist, when you go and see work, you are like a little detective trying to see how it was made. As a viewer I get that same pleasure in looking that the artist must have when they created it. Just seeing how she put each layer down, the redness of the lips. I loved seeing her work in person. There’s nothing like it.

There is an artist, Nicole Wittenburg, who I’m very inspired by now. She recently had an article written about her in Elle magazine, all about women who paint men. It’s amazing that that was in a mainstream magazine—about women painting men! It was thrilling.

It’s really great to have someone in the art world who is very vocal about her perspective as a woman who paints men. It’s an uphill battle. She talks about it a lot in this article in Elle, about the struggles of not only creating this kind of work but also the difficulties on the commercial side as well. We often think of successful artists in dollar amounts, and in terms of selling your work, well, paintings with penises in them really don’t sell and it’s ridiculous. Her perspective is incredibly important to me and any artist with a challenging subject.

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Love Is A Wild Computer #3, 2016 28x22in, oil on canvas

How do you deal with the dual potential of social media to distract and its ability to connect and inspire?

A: It’s a double edged sword. It’s so integral, it’s so important, and I also really enjoy it. I started an Instagram account when I was living in France, around 2014. I would start posting pictures of my works in progress and little drawings. Then I would have to finish them because I had put a picture out there, in progress, so I felt the need to finish the work! Even though I had like 20 followers in the beginning it was a strong positive feedback loop that held me accountable, publicly, to finishing work and make new work.

It was really important to me to commit to that. I loved hearing people saying that they liked what I was working on, and to see what they were working on. You can connect with all different kinds of people, and as I’ve continued in my practice my online connections have also just grown and grown and grown. I have met so many amazing artists and made great contacts literally just through something like Instagram, which is wild to me.

However the other side of the sword is the negative feeling of obligation that you have to do it. I mean, of course if you are already well connected or you already have a really strong practice with an enviable career then you can get away with being a hermit. That does sound nice sometimes I have to say. But also it is nice to share what you’re doing and build a community. I can ask another artist questions and say like “Hey I’m going to work with this medium, have you ever used this before? What did you like about it?” Or you can share something like “I found this specific brand of oil paint is better than this one for that reason” and you can talk shop to each other and that is really great.

Hayley

Love Is A Wild Computer #4, 2017, 28x22in, oil on canvas

Color is such big part of what you’re doing with your work and I’m curious what your relationship has been to color through your work?

Yeah, I use a lot of unconventional color to represent my figures, although really they’re all colors that are found in skin or in our bodies. One color I don’t go near with a ten-foot pole is green. So there is no green in any of my pieces. I don’t mess with green! Yes, it’s the color of nature and of reality but my paintings are representations of beauty for beauty’s sake and in that regard nature is crude. JMW Turner, an artist I love, reached a point in his painting career where he stopped using green. He was such an incredible painter, ahead of his time. He obviously had to work within the constraints of the time in which he lived, and he was painting these seascapes, but they were really just an excuse to paint, right. I love that idea so much. Anyway, his paintings are most beautiful when he completely stopped using green.

So instead I am working with parts of the body that I choose to either sexualize or conversely de-emphasize with color. For me it’s all about these incredibly dark reds and blush pinks and sort of like bruised fruit colors, that I use to bring attention to, or hyper emphasize parts of the body. Almost looking painful or as if there are too many blood vessels there.

Essentially I want to take the viewer on a journey. I want to hold their hand and I want to take them somewhere where they wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to go, and that the whole time they are in such visual ecstasy that they are okay to follow along. The way I use color is so intertwined with my subject matter, of choosing to paint men. I don’t think people are going to necessarily say “Yeah I want to look at a bunch of male nudes,” so it’s my goal to take the viewer along and present them with something that’s so beautiful that they can’t look away.

To have a painting, for example, this painting here that I just finished a few weeks ago (Love is a Wild Computer #4); there is a penis in this painting but the first thing you notice is the hand saturated with so much red paint. Next you notice the thigh with its absence of color as that’s all about texture, and then you notice the penis. That’s due to my choices as an artist, my application of paint. Someone could be leaning in really close and looking at this painting, a painting with a very obvious penis but first they’re like “Wow that’s painted like this way, with these colors” and they’re lost in the paint. The fact that they’re closely inspecting a male nude almost comes second. That prospect to me would equate an amazing amount of success- to showcase this subject without it being reduced down to maybe a joke or something that is only for a niche audience. That’s where I rely on my application of paint, and that has a lot to do with color.

I read an interview with you where you talked about how much you love Los Angeles. Being back, what is so great about living and working in L.A., as an artist?

Well, L.A. is the best city in the country for contemporary art. I mean, just objectively it’s the best place to be if you are an emerging artist and you want to be a part of the art world. I couldn’t always see L.A. the way that I do now. Obviously I grew up here, I’m from here, I went to elementary, middle, and high school here. I studied at Otis here. But then I spent then most of my adult life living abroad.

I was so desperate to get away from Los Angeles and try something totally different, at 22 I’d spent my whole life here. I returned to L.A. last year, and I actually had a lot of mixed feelings about it. I really didn’t know how it would feel. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it.

I’ve been the most prolific with my work, I’ve been the most successful (in whatever way one can measure such a thing). I’ve pushed myself the most and I’ve challenged myself the most to try new things since being back, too. I think it’s because there’s such a rich art environment in L.A., which makes me really happy. It’s different than any other place.

There is so much diversity in Los Angeles in the work that is being shown and there is work that is pushing boundaries. It feels so full of potential and so exciting, and that’s not for nothing in our current political climate. Like making any kind of work that challenges the status quo, toxic masculinity or any kind of oppressive ideology is so important, and that’s happening here.

Arts funding is being cut in this country. What do you have in this world if you don’t fight for cultural things like art and music or anything like that? It is not a frivolous thing; devaluing the arts is inexorably linked with oppression—who left will have access to make art? View art?

Living in a city where art is valued is more important than ever, to be among those who want to make work that is challenging, that makes you feel scared or uncomfortable. I feel that way all the time. So it’s really important especially now. And I really think Los Angeles is probably the best place in the country to do it.

Explore more of Hayley's work and follow her on instagram.