In 2004 I helped Cameron Hayes put together a publication to accompany his solo show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. When I went to deliver some to be stocked at the Arts Bookshop a rather peeved employee there complained: “but you don’t have any information in here about the artist!”
It’s true. I did try, but he refused, genuinely seeing it as erroneous information. “Just show the pictures”, Hayes instructed, “and the only text should be about the stories.” So that’s what we did. No biography, nor exhibition history, not even a birth date. This time however, I happened to get a bit more out of him. So here goes:
Cameron Hayes is first and foremost a narrative painter. Usually his style of work consists of densely painted large scale canvases filled with figures and scenery, animals and architecture, playing havoc with retinal activity. Have a look at Mathias Ulungura captures Hajime Toyashima – 19th February 1942 – this is indicative of his usual style.
But the Milikapiti show is slightly different. There are large canvases with empty spaces and small canvases with intimate scenes. This body of work, some painted in 2006, some as recently as this year, is in essence one work. Instead of many scenes in one canvas, individual scenes get their own canvas, and some characters have even evolved into soft sculpture format.
Hayes has decided to speak about this body of work, something he hasn’t done often in the past. I think he is frustrated. Of being misunderstood, of people not taking the time and care to look at his work in equal measure to the care he puts into creating it. It can be frustrating. One thing I have noticed following Hayes’ work is that he often tackles subject matter before the rest of us are quite ready to deal with it, or even recognise it. Years ago he painted a magnificent lolly coloured painting that investigated corporate paedophilia, the marketing of sexuality and childhood. A couple of years later it was a hot topic in the media. I’m not suggesting he is some sort of trend-forecasting zeitgeist, but that’s what happens when you have an observer like Hayes. They see things before other people do because he’s not participating. He’s watching and recording.
Marketing and branding is something that still interests him today with this body of work. Many of these paintings were painted during an 18-month period when Hayes was living in a small Aboriginal community called Milikapiti Melville Island north of Darwin (Northern Territory, Australia) the home to the Tiwi people for the last 7,000 years or so. Fascinated by the clash and melding of Tiwi culture and European culture, the community life and Tiwi history acts as a backdrop. It is a microcosm for a global pattern of displacement, expansion of dominant nations, corporate/social branding taking over culture and identity. Take the painting The least convincing rap band in the world – 11 August 1997; or 14 Kurdish refugees land in Milikapiti and ask, “is this Austraila?” – 4th November 2003. The latter work referencing the sinister use of marketing in politics and the media. Based on a true story, a group of refugees were spotted on a vessel in the bay at Milikapiti. The conservative Howard Government of the time did a fantastic job of instilling a fear and hatred campaign of refugees through the media, basically branding them as potential terrorists and possible carriers of unknown diseases. It worked. So pervasive was this strategic political message that it even reached across the nation from capital cities to remote small communities. So here we have asylum seekers in the guise of The Raft of the Medusa, instead of ragged cloth they are waving brand name t-shirts representing our new dominant culture – the well marketed Brand. Would they have more success by appealing, not to empathetic fellow people, not to other displaced victims, but to those who like the same brands – who do you identify with? Are you Nike or more of a Burberry? Are you Apple or PC? Are you Right or Left?
Displaced people. We have a world full of them now, don’t we? Indigenous people, migrants, refugees, the old, the young, women, the battered, the misunderstood, the abused, hell, even just the lonely. Hayes believes his role as an artist is “to tell a story” and in the Milikapiti works the story is this:
“Most art has a sub-text and a text. The text is the scenery and the characters, the location. The subtext is the motivation, the idea behind it. The Tiwi islands are just the text. The stories are mainly about what happens when you have a group of people and someone from elsewhere comes into the group. No matter what happens, even when someone has good intentions to do everyone a favour, usually that person usurps someone, their position within the group. Milikapiti is a good metaphor for that, because when the Europeans came in they (mostly) tried to help, and even then the result was that it did someone out of a job. For instance, when they gave everyone the dole [welfare] it meant that Tiwi hunters weren’t required to provide food, or when they gave everyone ladders, the best tree climbers that could reach mangoes were out of a job. And so that is part of the story of Milikapiti, the celebrity status of a lot of people had been lost. Their purpose had been lost. “
The Missionaries themselves are a good example of this type of displacement, from various angles. Half way to Milikapiti from Darwin the old Tiwi man admitted they were lost – 29 July 1964. “The nuns come in to try and help, and overall they probably did, but there were a lot of casualties along the way.” Hayes doesn’t judge these individual missionaries, on the contrary he seems to have a real affinity for their sense of adventure and bravery, in essence their own displacement. But what does it achieve all of these good intentions? A perceived superiority of technology, values, lifestyle, or belief systems – what happens when people meet, groups combine, cultures collide, and one inevitably has more power than the other?
Painted in 2012 Waiting for a confession 31st October 1967 shows the absurdity of the formal ritual of confession taking place in the incongruous context of the bush. A 20-year-old priest takes confessions of octogenarian Tiwi people. He’s somehow dragged a portable confessional that is placed in the untamed bush. They’ve lived a long life so the list is long!
The humour found in the incongruous meeting of cultures has also been used in the soft sculpture installation The Hunters, 2012. Three elderly women are going hunting. They are wearing inappropriate t-shirts. Those who have ever lived in remote communities would recognise such a scene. Often there is only one shop with limited stock, usually the clothing range is t-shirts featuring popular rap bands, song titles and slogans, or multi-national brands. Here Hayes has used the lyrics from a song called “Horny” (yes, really) by Mousse T, a ludicrously banal pop song that was very popular on Australian radio. The figure is also carrying a ‘Hello Kitty’ bag, one of the world’s largest brands it has permeated nearly every remote corner on earth! The incongruity of the cuteness, the inappropriate slogans, the blood, and carcases – it displays the unique way of life, the idiosyncrasies of the Tiwi people. Hayes also uses this simple, funny scene as a metaphor for what he describes as an ‘ill-fitting culture’. The European choices, the white Australian lifestyle just doesn’t quite meet the women’s needs.
The soft sculpture installations are interesting aesthetic devices. They are visual references to scenes and motifs in the paintings, but they also act as light relief, objects of colour and texture, fictional characters in 3-dimensions. They bind the 2-dimensional works together as a series, much the same way as the artist uses visual devices in his large-scale canvases to link different scenes together – whether that be repeated characters (human or animals) and patterns (poles, trees, rivers) or colours. Hayes describes his formal approach to painting as such:
“In reality there is very little difference when you walk around the streets between colours when you look at things. They’re quite close. The problem is when you are a kid and you start painting you paint a red dress, blue pants, and a white background. But in reality that dress is either dark red or light red and the pants are the same and everything looks quite similar in tone. So that is something you learn as you get experience. If you don’t want it to look amateurish, or to be like a Mondrian or Matisse picture, most colours are quite similar. Also it’s a lot easier to look at if you haven’t got colours jarring against each other, and when you are painting you try and make everything conservative which leaves you the option of doing bold colours later to attract peoples attention in different directions. So you paint a picture, you try and get the colours – say if 1 is white and 10 is black – you try to keep everything about 5 & 6 so that at the end of the picture you can use your black & your white, or bold colours as highlights, as a way of directing. Because if you start off with bold colours you’ve got nowhere to go because your eyes just look at the bold colours first and everything is compared to that. You lose control of the viewer looking at a picture if you use too many bold colours because people look straight at that.”
This body of work spans over 8 years. It is a compelling approach to universal themes from a considered and accomplished artist. Some of the artist’s own text used in his work is perhaps misleading, or like his work, a type of fiction. It is not a re-telling of Milikapiti history as much as it is a narrative ploy. He uses his experiences, the visual feast of Tiwi culture and history, as a metaphor for the issues discussed above: displacement, global branding, homogenising culture. The fallout of this is a growing trend of alternative cultures, ideas, values, anything that contravenes the structure and value system of the dominant society becoming victimised casualties along the way.
But wait, there’s more!
Semi-authorised abridged artist biography in point form:
- Cameron’s full name is Cameron Kingsley Hayes. He was born on Halloween in 1969. He’s lived in Sydney, Melbourne and Melville Island. He works in his studio every single day – EVERY SINGLE DAY. I have only known him to take a break on rare family holidays and trips to attend exhibition openings in New York. Even then he will suffer great anxiety about leaving his studio and will assuage his guilt by sketching, planning and conducting research for further work.
- For his larger scale canvases, which is the majority of his work, it takes approximately 3 – 4 months to complete, and he will often work simultaneously on 2 – 3 canvases at a time.
- He doesn’t have studio assistants, every brushstroke is his and every sculpture is hand made. He even taught himself to sew to do the soft sculptures. He went to art school at RMIT, Melbourne.
- He admires the work of Cat Rabbit, Henry Darger and Hieronymous Bosch. The idea of creating soft, toy-like sculptures was inspired by fellow artist Chris Humphries.
- He can often be found at the Melbourne City Library doing research. He reads a great deal about every subject he paints about.
- If you ever truly wanted to get a different perspective on something, problem, social issues, political figure, anything really, he would be the person to ask. He will enlighten the topic from such a vastly different perspective it will amaze you. If he ever stopped being an artist (which will never happen) he could get a job as someone who thinks so far outside of the box he could revolutionalise think tanks. However, he’d probably unintentionally offend you at the same time.
- He runs every day and clocks up to 100 kms a week. He umpires A grade Amateurs football.
- If, for some reason, you needed someone to take care of $50,000 in cash you could give it to Cameron. Even if you couldn’t pick it up for 10 years or more, you can be sure it would still be there and he wouldn’t have spent a dollar.
- He doesn’t like to ask for favours.
- In response to the question “how are you, Cameron?”, he will respond “I’m the same”, without exception.
- Even as a child he was an observer, and already much like an old man. Observations of his elders influenced a very strong code of ethics.
- When he was at St Kevin’s he was the captain of the cross country and known as a good artist. His family lost everything when his father was sent to prison. His school kept him on with a scholarship.
- He has had the same haircut forever. He has never been drunk and has never taken drugs.
- When the warm months start to turn cold he wears less clothes because he thinks it is a good way to train his body to get used to winter. When he catches a cold he wears a raincoat to go jogging because he thinks he can sweat it out.
- When I warned him that I was going to “do something different which you probably won’t like” by doing this bio section, he responded “anything but flattery”.
- His greatest fear is running out of time before he gets to complete all of his paintings.
Cameron Hayes is represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, http://feldmangallery.com
Schwerin, Marielle & Hayes, Cameron, Cameron Hayes, 2004, ISBN 0-646-42962-0
A fabulous video preview of some of Hayes’ earlier work in the series by Boyd Hicklin
Another fabulous video preview of Cameron Hayes’ painting What happens when pretend politicians pretend to be terrorists by film maker Sarah Lewis.
Fantastic video by Sarah Lewis about Cameron Hayes – a must watch!
This body of work was scheduled to be exhibited in Melbourne in June. Unfortunately, this exhibition was cancelled. There was some call for censorship due to the artist’s use of indigenous subject matter. Not only was this a seeming misunderstanding and reduction of Cameron Hayes’ work it was a serious censorship of discussion about the role of art in current social discourse and the relationship between indigenous and contemporary art in Australia. No doubt there will be further developments on this story! …. And there is! : This body of work is scheduled to be exhibited at Dark Horse Experiment in Melbourne, August 1st to September 2nd 2012. So people can see it for themselves, and talk!