“Night at the Museum sounds like it should have been a better movie,” Jeanette Hayes says during a recent night at the museum. The museum is the Met, in New York, Hayes’ suggestion, and which won out over a spin around the Whitney. “The Met is a little more fun because it’s Friday, and the mood is always exciting on Fridays,” is how she sells it. Also, she says she’s a fan of two of the guards.
Hayes is recently back in New York from her native Chicago, where she spent Easter with her family and prepared, to mixed reception, a lasagna in the shape of a crucifix. The Met is unusually placid for a Friday at the end of April. Mostly, we have the run of the place. It’s about a week until Vogue’s junta of assistants closes the museum down in service of the Met Gala, the high-octane synergistic spectacle of art, fashion and media that inaugurates its spring costume exhibit and the closest the Upper East Side gets to feeling the hot, weird lights of Los Angeles. But for now, the European painting galleries are positively serene. She’s happy to be here, back from a recent visit to a museum in Stockholm. "It was ok,” she says. “But nothing compares to the Met.”
Hayes, who is twenty-eight, and has searing platinum-dyed hair which she keeps long and wears with black denim, black boots and a black motorcycle jacket, has sat somewhere among the young–downtown–avant garde loci of New York’s creative class since 2010, around the time she graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She had studied painting and quickly found work as a studio assistant to Rita Ackermann, a job she supplemented by making tiny dollhouse paintings on spec that she sold to FAO Schwarz.
Hayes has moved periodically among various neighborhoods in Manhattan, including, for a time, Roosevelt Island, an isolated spit of land in the East River notable for its aerial tramway and the fact that most New Yorkers probably will never need or care to visit it. One benefit of its location, however, is its proximity to the Met. Hayes would make frequent salutary visits to lighten her mood, possibly darkened by the ghosts haunting her apartment building, the former New York City Lunatic Asylum, now repurposed as luxury condos. Hayes points out Rubens’ 1616 Wolf and Fox Hunt, a massive scrum of gnashing teeth and jumbled limbs she says was a soothing presence. “I’d look at this and think, ‘My life is at least better than these guys’,’” she jokes.
Hayes mentions a comedy-art tour she’s heard has been moving around the museum lately, in which a comedian leads a group through the galleries and tells art jokes, an unholy attempt at making learning rad. She’s not entirely sure if it being museum-sanctioned makes it better or worse, or what she would do if we come across it.
Comedy isn’t an immediate metaphor in thinking about contemporary art but maybe it should be. Not that Hayes approaches her own work, which plays in a narrow corridor between reverence for art history and the complete explosion of it, like an open mic night at Comedy Cellar. More so that her paintings balance the kind of cerebral heavy-lifting and impeccable precision that makes good comedy potent. It helps that Hayes is funny, in an arid, observational way. Often, after a short silence which is later understood as a wind-up, she’ll present a deadpan non-sequitur, like when she says she just watched the North Korean military parade and appreciated the aesthetics.
“I like how comedians think,” Hayes says. “I like how comedy is formulaic.”
Hayes’ practice, up to this point, can be thought of in a few parts. In one, modern iconography intrudes on classic works: high-low, sacred-profane transubstantiations placing Pokémon on the laps of Pérignon’s society women or replacing the Ben-Day dots of Lichtenstein’s damsels in distress with emoji. The works in this strain of Hayes’ corpus pull double-duty: aside from the immediate novelty of a Scyther disrupting Manuela González Velázquez, playing the piano, there is also the disruption of the male gaze. Hayes seizes upon the grand tradition of male painters rhapsodizing over the female form and douses it with cold water. This is true of Les Demoiselles d’Anime, a 2013 oil painting which takes Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso’s depiction of five nude prostitutes, and superimposes the grinning, goggle-eyed girls of the Japanese shōjo manga Sailor Moon.
Hayes treats the canon like the high dive at a public pool, her paintings like a rude cannonball in the middle of a backstroke lesson. Her De Mooning series, in which the Sailor Moon members reappear, this time to dally in the abstract expressionist fields of Willem de Kooning’s Women paintings, bend Ab Ex’s musculature toward a reevaluation of female representation. Her practice isn’t so much indebted to the masters as it is a claim on them for herself.
Hayes says she approached the De Mooning paintings as an academic exercise, which she’s since satisfied. The last of them, four, twelve-inch square paintings in which Sailor Moon tears through digitized disruptions of the Paramount Studios logo or a drone strike array, were on view earlier this month at The Hole gallery in New York. During a recent visit there, Joe Jonas could be seen admiring them, taking a few pictures with his phone and inquiring about shipping.
Hayes is no stranger to celebrity interaction. Her Instagram is full of pictures with luminaries like Cardi B, Snoop Dogg and the occasional strange video with Young Thug. Hayes also counts Beyoncé (yes, that one) and Joey Purp as acquaintances.
If there’s a world that’s embraced Hayes more than hip hop, it would be fashion. Hayes doesn’t find fashion particularly similar to the art world but thinks the difference is intriguing. She’s produced graphics for Proenza Schouler, Chanel and Vogue. She’s modeled both for Opening Ceremony and for the Italian house Iceberg in a campaign which also featured downtown lodestars like Glenn O’Brien and Kim Gordon. On the recommendation of the nightlife consul Ladyfag, Hayes created video installations for the afterparty to Alexander Wang’s Spring 2014 collection, a visually assaultive Ginza fantasia held in a mall at the South Street Seaport that was set for demolition a week later.
She was recently approached to do a collaboration with a New York designer, who, because talks are still in their early stages, she’d rather not have identified yet.
“When I was proposed I was like, no,” she says. “But then they sent me the mock-ups and I was like, ‘I want to wear it.’ I was opposed to it because I didn’t have any feelings about it. And I know some people feel weird about fashion, but I don’t care about it. That’s not my thing. Julian Schnabel has jackets of his paintings—he wears his paintings on his back. So now I think I want to do the whole thing just so I can have them.”
Incidentally, Hayes has been going to a lot of comedy shows. She’s moved back downtown, trading proximity to the Met for comedy clubs. “I go to think,” she says. “A lot of times I don’t care about what they’re actually saying, but what it makes me think about. I went to one thing recently, like, bad jokes about Jesus. I don’t even remember the joke, beside it being awful but it started me thinking about how there aren’t so many paintings of Jesus in hell. No one talks about that part. I would think everyone would want to make these paintings, of Jesus boxing the Devil, right? It’s things like that. I don’t know what brought me there, but that was the jump-off.”
Discussion of Hayes’ work usually uses some combination of the words “internet,” “digital culture” and “social networks.” This is in part because of the fallacy that everything made by people who grew up with computers is about computers, in part because Hayes has made paintings of the Virgin Mary positioned as iPhone wallpaper.
It’s probably more useful to think of Hayes in the continuum of Duchamp, Warhol, Rauschenberg (who erased a de Kooning drawing and called it postmodernism) and Richard Prince, artists who made appropriation its own art form, or as Rainer Crone wrote about Warhol, crystallized “the rejection of authorship as an essential feature of authenticity and originality.” Perhaps most acutely, Hayes has an affinity for Jeff Koons, contemporary art’s jester prince of cribbing, who puts a lawn ornament in front of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and waits for the checks to roll in.
I ask Hayes what she thinks about Koons’s latest collaboration, with Louis Vuitton, in which he takes the works of the Old Masters, like Rubens’ Tiger Hunt, and transfers them onto leather bags.
“I’m all for it,” Hayes says. “High-key genius.”
Koons and Hayes are known to each other, and Hayes coyly suggests that the inspiration flows both ways. “Take whatever you want,” she says, half tossed in Koons’ direction, half granting some kind of cosmic permission. “You’re helping me out.” In a 2012 video spot for VFILES, Hayes laid out the scaffolding of this line of thinking. “Everything is everyone’s,” she says directly into the camera and with the minor exasperation of having to explain a plainly obvious truth. “If you put something on the internet, it’s mine.”
The paintings Hayes is working on now are still preoccupied with canonical imagery, only a bit differently. Two of these, which she calls her “end of the world paintings,” were recently on view in a group show at Castor Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side. In them, neoclassical odalisques drape languorously and play pan flutes in a flat light. Nearby, a figure relieved of a few layers of skin considers a piece of fruit. Everyone is nude and no one is bothered.
“It’s the bright side of the end of the world,” Hayes says in the American Wing cafe as she cycles through images of the paintings on her iPhone, the screen of which is near-shattered, which seems ironic, given the subject material. They suggest a return to some prelapsarian idyll–no iPhones, buffering cues or softly humming blue light, no hint of “internet culture” at all.
“I always thought an apocalypse, like, Hurricane Katrina, which—terrible, awful—but to be in that dome, the excitement, seemed something great. Even how I imagine it was to be in New York after 9/11—we’re together, we’re humans—that kind of thing. It’s dark and it’s scary and it’s cold, but it’s kinda fun, and it might be kinda beautiful.”
The inclination, in the particular political moment, is to take these as a vision of a Trump-accelerated cataclysm, which would be incorrect, mostly. For one, Hayes insists she’s not interested in political art. For another, there’s no dying: lustrous flora and lazy jaguar babies and lolling sylphs, yes, but no pain or suffering or sulphur.
“It just is the end,” Hayes says. “But everyone’s alright I guess.”
Photographer: Katie McCurdy
Stylist: Kindall Almond
Makeup: Marcelo Gutierrez using NARS Cosmetics
Hair: Levi Monarch