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Hal Boyd’s “Active Imagination” Runs Wild

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Gallery Blue Door, located in a fine rowhome in Mount Vernon, is now strengthening its reputation by rotating three solo exhibitions at one time, staggering the openings. They focus on regional artists, emerging and established. Their latest exhibition, Active Imagination, features paintings by Hal Boyd.

At age 88 Hal is prolific, working in his home studio in Monkton, where he lives with his extended family. I always found his work engaging, but on a computer where all paintings are flattened lightbox style it was hard to assess them. In the exhibition, that which is appealing about his paintings online, becomes more compelling in person.

The exhibition, placed on the gallery’s dark blue walls, overwhelms with over 40 medium-sized paintings, hung salon style, and features Neo-Surrealist works that recall twentieth century expressionist artists like Emil Nolde and Max Beckman. Hal leans into the genre, updating them by imbuing his work with hyper personal symbolism. Each painting delivers a psychological narrative loaded with puzzle-tight lush, sophisticated color.

 

Signifiers,” 2022, from Boyd’s most recent body of work, is calmer, more subtle than many other works in the exhibit. The painting features two female musicians standing in a blue-green room. One holds a fetching red and blue accordion and the other a curved light-yellow brown saxophone.

The floor tilts and swims down off the painting at an alarming angle. The accordion woman stands erect peering towards the back of more elegant blonde saxophonist in front of her who stares off to the right, eyes heavy with blurry makeup. Behind them both a black door recedes—an entrance or escape. The painting evokes desire and mystery, and has a hint of Edvard Munch. There is a lot of make-up on the characters in the show. It may be  masking or just everyday enhancement drag.

 

“Signifiers,” 2022
Acrylic on Stretched Canvas 24” x 18”

 

With this one piece, Boyd wades into the gloriously oddball humanness of being. He pursues the lusty ocean of the every-person subconscious—a dreamland hauled up for all to see. In his world relationships are loaded, flowers burst sexy, animals prowl cackling, beauty and hilarity intertwine.

Boyd is guided by the big three pioneering psychologists of the 20th century—Freud, Jung, and Lacan. Like them all, he roots his work in the subconscious. The artist spent many years in therapy and continues to study the topic. He keeps journals, writes of his dreams, and deep dives into all manner of literature and philosophy. His work starts with a concrete symbol or idea, then proceeds through excavated discovery. These paintings are not just spontaneous musings but have depth thought imbedded symbolism. While Hal can explain any painting in detail, down to every odd wrap around monkey and flying fish, he prefers the viewer give it a go.

“I want it to be theirs, I want to give them something,” he told me in a phone interview.

His work is also about the physicality of paint. Pure paint. Paint as process, paint as a narrative. In his artist statement, he compares himself to Grandma Moses (with a dose of Freud). I get the idea, but I don’t buy the Grandma Moses part. She remained overtly naïve, with flat-styled works loaded with nostalgia for pre-corporate American farm life.

Boyd’s work is contemporary, layered, and savvy. It is well-constructed visual poetry that delivers surprise through sublime lines, forms, and figures that stay with the audience. He has lived a long, interesting life which is a rich resource to mine and reference.

 

Hal Boyd, “Anima,” 2009

Boyd was born in 1934 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town known as a blues crossroads. As a child he was always drawing, often trading his work to others for more paper. While he considers himself a self-taught artist, he had a lengthy art education.

As a young man he studied drawing, painting, and sculpture at the University of Nebraska and soon after at the University of Mississippi. There his art teachers included ab-ex luminaries Jack Tworkov and David Smith. Both were mid-twentieth century improvisational modernists, romantics to the core. Boyd finished up his graduate work studying literature. That’s a serious arts pedigree for any working artist, not the background of a folksy, outsider painter. In 1958 he was drafted into the army for two years, where stationed in Germany his writing skills landed him a gig as secretary to a commanding officer.

By 1961 he was a civilian back in the states, a self-described “three-martini lunch ad man”—working as the marketing director for Warner Lambert, a large pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey. At this time, married and with a family, Boyd was transferred to San Antonio. There he changed employers to stay in the region, ultimately starting his own agency. Throughout his long successful marketing career, he pursued his passion for painting and writing on his own time. He retired twenty-five years ago at age 63 and moved to North Carolina with his wife Clif. There, with plenty of free time, he returned to his art practice vigorously, and exhibitions quickly followed.

Boyd let go of some of the formal rigor academia imposed on him. He says he approaches his work as he did as a child, as play. He luxuriates in thick paint, odd composition, and color combinations that shouldn’t work. Most of all, he luxuriates in narratives that surprise and enthrall him. This allows him to roll out, though painting, a cast of characters that, when seen together, conjures up a long form novel: a big ass rollicking fictional novel that flips between noir and carnival, full of sexy adoration and farce. Boyd’s people laze about dressed (or undressed) in finery worthy of the old MGM film lot.

All the paintings in the exhibition were created in the last two decades. The older ones seem to be a bit more pastoral and detailed; the latest works cut to the essence. Some have a slower detailed approach; others are immediate and abstract. Often Boyd places his figures into tight spaces, many in verticals. Color undulates around them, an activating force.

 

"Sailor His Ship and the Sea," 2001, Acrylic on Stretched Canvas 30” x 24”
"Talkers," 2019, Acrylic on Stretched Canvas 20” x 16”

In “Sailor His Ship and the Sea,” a gorgeous 2001 midsized painting, a small blond boy in a sailor suit sits, immersed in a dining room overflowing with color. He stares up at a plethora of blooming flowers standing on a striking purple and white striped tablecloth, to his left a window undulates, curtains and exterior blend. To his right a turquoise door sits closed. It is vibrant yet calm, a trippy painting, a memorial to childhood gone.

Compare it to “Talkers,” a 2019 work with a triad of conflicted characters. In front of a blotchy green bush a smiling woman made up in green eye-shadow sits staring straight at the viewer, holding a slack ventriloquist’s dummy, his mouth agape, eyes dead. To her right is a flowing blue tree trunk.

Beneath it, hunkered down in the lower right, is a bright cadmium red clownish human faced dog with a huge grinning mouth full of bright white teeth. The composition is deliberately askew and compelling, feeding the unease. It’s a nightmare farce, a humdinger of punchy foreboding.

 

"Six Characters,"2021, Acrylic on cradled wood panel
"Igloo," 2022, Acrylic on Cradled Wood Panel 36” x 24”

“Igloo,” also painted in 2022, is the most abstract work in the show and one of the most successful. It’s an outlier. An awkward rounded form created by a patchwork of colors that play off each other like a set of Joseph Albers squares, it depicts a home made from the source of its environment. Here, paint instead of ice. The painting delivers a whiff of late Phillip Guston’s cartoon lumpiness and hidden truth. Who lives here? The artist maybe?

There are many more paintings that linger long after one leaves, it just depends on how you get hooked. The hot bright yellow piano player. The sweet little naked masked boy, trying on some slinky women’s underwear while dwarfed by a massive pair of jockey shorts hanging on a clothesline. A radiant woman sitting smiling next to a plump chow dog, peering over a white tablecloth. Two teachers solemnly holding a pair a white lambs in a subdued space. 

The exhibition is a carefully hand-picked retrospective that does the artist proud. The works are all priced modestly, more than affordable. Purchasing these works is the best way to insure they travel out into the world as the artist intends. There others can glean for themselves what Boyd dreamt up just for them.

 

Hal Boyd: Active Imagination is on view until April 8th, 2023
at Gallery Blue Door
833 Park Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21201
Wednesdays 10am-2pm
Fridays 2pm-6pm

Images courtesy of the artist and Blue Door Gallery

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