This review is part of our Sixty Regional initiative which partners with artists, writers, and artist-run spaces to highlight art happening throughout the Midwest and Illinois. Written by Juliet Johnson, a Champaign-Urbana-based artist, writer and curator, this review is cross-published with the growing Central Illinois platform Sight Specific.
A memorial card shows Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in embrace. Erin Hayden’s paintings in Hold Me are based on this card, made for Lincoln’s funeral. He gazes in adoration at Washington, who places a laurel on Lincoln’s head. The caption reads, “Apotheosis,” meaning “the elevation of someone to divine status, deification.” In all of Hayden’s paintings, this image is warped and built upon. In the gallery, one large painting is flanked by sixteen smaller works behind which the large marigold words, “Hold” and “Me” square off.
Like previous work by Hayden, Hold Me contains kitsch, pixelated, and found imagery widely sourced and all on equal footing. We see emojis, iron-on patches, thick paint blobs, and other images more reminiscent of the dregs of a Google Image search. These culture scraps seem to imbue her collage-paintings with a kind of evidential true-ness—it seems we are the contents of our pockets. Hayden uses paint as another ingredient in collage, creating a semiotic web overlaying and interacting with the memorial card.
In the largest painting, All wrapped up, a smiling light bulb-shaped creature floats down from a beam of light (God?), and below them is a grinning pumpkin, Mickey Mouse, and an 8-bit image of Lincoln axing a man, presumably John Wilkes Booth, in some kind of post-mortem video game justice. A large mind-blown emoji reveals a dark humor, accompanied by the word “wink.” This central painting, perhaps the most direct, acts like a key, introducing us to the logic of the show. We find that the imagery is not random, but critical. The playful irreverence in All wrapped up is consistent throughout, which feels at once loving and cynical towards its main characters. Even though the memorial card is on par with the rest of the cultural paraphernalia, each work seems to address itself—we read the presidents in relation to their surroundings.
Elsewhere, the two presidents are paired with scraps suggesting an adolescent feminine friendship, or presidential hanky-panky. At times, we see Lincoln on his knees looking up at Washington, the text “hope” and “love” hovering above them, a “69” iron-on patch within Lincoln’s head, or flowers in their hair. These markers bring to mind a mural of Trump kissing Putin recently floating around the internet, followed by critiques suggesting homophobia. Despite my concern, I feel the figures in Hayden’s paintings are handled with fondness so I am inclined to move to other thoughts.
One of Hayden’s smaller paintings, Remembering, we all try our best, shows images of Lincoln kneeling before Washington, “Super Effort!” stickers with cartoon silhouettes, and a red silhouette of a girl with black paint blobs wiggling over her. The girl’s silhouette calls forth Kara Walker’s oeuvre and Carrie Mae Weems’s, From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried, a devastatingly acute series of antebellum portraits of black humanity accompanied by text which addresses the viewer’s complicity in its negation . The evocation of a black feminine perspective in this painting is significant, turning a critical eye to these figures so often celebrated, as in the presidential memorial card. But we live in a time of questioning idols, which wouldn’t be possible without the internet, infinitely speeding the rate we mix politicians in with grinning pumpkins, as in Hayden’s eclectic works. Painting these “deified” presidents in our current climate, where male idols are not beyond doubt, questions if they still hold their divine status.
In the memorial card, Washington is already a deity, welcoming Lincoln to heaven. Lincoln’s gaze misses Washington’s, like Adam reaching for God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (as though Lincoln asks, “hold me”). And in our current time of idols-cum-monsters, do we long for American guiding figures (hold me)? Are Lincoln and Washington those figures? Should they be? Perhaps the increasing visibility of our idols’ problematics will assist us in addressing our own complicity, remembering, we all try our best.
Featured Image: Installation view of Hold Me, a solo show of work by Erin Hayden at the University of Illinois Springfield’s Visual Arts Gallery, 2018. The word “Hold” is painted on the wall in round, orange letters. Photo courtesy of UIS Visual Arts Gallery.
Juliet Johnson is an interdisciplinary artist/writer/curator recently graduated from California State University Long Beach with a BFA in Sculpture/New Genres. She has shown in Current:LA, Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, and the University Art Museum in Long Beach, and has interned for X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly and AbleARTS Work (formerly Arts & Services for Disabled, Inc). She is currently based in Champaign-Urbana.