Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a worldwide environmental movement to drive transformative change and positive action for our planet.

THESE AREN’T ORDINARY LOGS, positioned just so, one on top of the other. Together, they form a mixed-media sculpture by Hugh Hayden. He meticulously collaged Sharptail grouse feathers to create the textured look of the bark on the two logs. “It’s me trying to remix nature into some new way of understanding humanity and the environment,” he says in a Hayward Gallery video.

Titled “Zelig” (2013), the sculpture is on view in “Among the Trees” (March 4-May 17, 2020), a group exhibition featuring 38 artists. The show “explores our relationship with trees and forests” and draws attention to their “beauty, scale and complexity.” (Hayward Gallery in London is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 virus.)

“Zelig” is an early example of Hayden’s conceptual work. His practice is centered around the anthropomorphization of the natural world. Transforming relatable materials, he considers the human condition and how we perceive ourselves and others.

Working primarily with wood, loaded with specific histories and attributes, Hayden explores a range of issues from race and social and class dynamics to belonging, assimilation and border migration. His studio is essentially a wood shop where he saws, carves, and sands his works, often creating composite objects.

Hayden sources wood from his native Texas—eastern red cedar, ash cedar, mesquite, chestnut, and Texas ebony. Each variety is embedded with meaning. Mesquite thrives in arid environments and is considered invasive where other woods struggle to survive, circumstances he likens to the very human notions of privilege, belonging, disdain, and vulnerability.

Indigenous to the southwestern tip of Texas and across the border into Mexico, Texas ebony has a dark brown, nearly black interior (heartwood) with a lighter, nearly white exterior (sapwood). “My attraction to it came from it being a play on my identity as a black person from Texas,” the artist says.

Working primarily with wood, loaded with specific histories and attributes, Hayden explores a range of issues from race and social and class dynamics to belonging, assimilation and border migration.

Installation view of “Among the Trees,” Hayward Gallery, London (March 4-May 17, 2020). Shown, foreground at left, HUGH HAYDEN, “Zelig” (2013). | Courtesy Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre


Speaking about “Zelig” (2013), his sculpture featured in the exhibition “Among the Trees” at Hayward Gallery, Hugh Hayden states how “trees blur the line between nature and culture.” | Video by Southbank Centre for Hayward Gallery


BORN IN DALLAS, TEXAS, Hayden lives and works in New York City. He earned an undergraduate degree in architecture from Cornell University and holds an MFA from Columbia University.

Hayedn joined Lisson Gallery in September 2018 and his first exhibition with the gallery confronted issues raised at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Hugh Hayden: Border States” (Sep. 15-Oct. 27, 2018) examines issues of citizenship, manifest destiny, and the contested boundaries between people and nations.

The lumber used to make the works was gathered from politically charged areas and the works produced are modeled after ideal notions family values and homeownership—a white picket fence, secure front door, shared dinner table, a baby crib, and a baby stroller.

According to Hayden, cedars are traditionally used to make fences, because the wood doesn’t rot and is pest resistant. Two works in the exhibition—the door of a home and a section of picket fencing—are both sprouting thorns and invasive weeds. The material objects symbolize key elements of the traditional American dream and, at the same time, speak to separation, confrontation, and keeping certain people out, issues unfolding at the border.

“Part of my interest in using wood is that most of human existence has some experience and understanding of a tree and the wood that comes from it,” Hayden says in the video. “So as an artist, it’s almost like this challenge, how can I transform something as ubiquitous and mundane as a tree or a piece of wood? And that if I can transform the way you think about this, that perhaps that’s a way in for me as an artist to sort of change how you think about other larger, more conceptual ideas.”


Installation view of “Hugh Hayden: Border States,” Lisson Gallery, 138 Tenth Avenue, New York (Sep. 15-Oct. 27, 2018). | Courtesy Lisson Gallery


HAYDEN’S FIRST EXHIBITION in the UK is currently on view at Lisson Gallery in London. (The space is temporarily closed due to COVID-19). “Hugh Hayden: American Food” (March 12-May 2, 2020), engages another aspect of his work, his culinary practice, which is being presented in an exhibition setting for the first time.

The show brings together new works, including a stove in the form of an amplified record player, a series of cast-iron skillets recast with impressions of African masks, and wood picnic tables with telling titles: “Can’t we all just get along,” “Communion,” and “Honorary Natives and the elephant in the middle of the room.”

What’s it all about? “Influenced by his background as an architect—in particular designing concepts for new restaurants—Hayden is interested in African cultural inflections on food, art and music. Hayden considers Southern cooking the first uniquely American cuisine, having originated in kitchens run by the enslaved cooks, who infused recipes with African tastes, ingredients and techniques,” according to Lisson.

“For the artist… the African origins and contributions in the creation of America’s cuisine are equally embedded in the country’s cultural and economic development and lasting infrastructure. More specifically, Hayden is ‘interested in celebrating the indebtedness to African origins in the cooking—as a form of creation of America, Western culture and Modern art.'”

It’s a fascinating departure from Hayden’s concentration on wood, its origins and symbolism. At the same time, it’s a continuation of his desire to employ the familiar to change how we think and how we view ourselves and one another. CT


TOP IMAGE: HUGH HAYDEN, “Zelig” (2013) (Sharptail grouse feathers on logs, 26.7 x 38.1 x 47 cm). | © Hugh Hayden, Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery


“Hugh Hayden: American Food” is on view at Lisson Gallery in London, March 12-May 2, 2020. “Among the Trees” is on view at Hayward Gallery in London, March 4-May 17, 2020. Both spaces are closed temporarily due to COVID-19. Check directly with each institution for scheduling updates.


FIND MORE about Hugh Hayden on his website


FIND MORE about Earth Day 2020 (April 22) and the Artists for the Earth initiative


Installation view of HUGH HAYDEN, “Communion,” 2020 (chestnut with steel hardware, 405 x 1050 x 620 cm / 159 3/8 x 413 3/8 x 244 inches), Lisson Gallery, London, 2020. | Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Hugh Hayden discusses his practice and the symbolism and production of the wood works included in “Hugh Hayden: Border States,” his exhibition at Lisson Gallery in New York City. | Video by Lisson Gallery


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