“Hoss [Haley] is doing something important,” announces John Cram, sitting on a bench in the lower level of his downtown gallery, Blue Spiral 1. He is surrounded by painter Julyan Davis’ oils — lovely, luminous landscapes of waterfalls and mountains and sunsets. Work that anyone can “get.” Work that Cram knows will sell.
Upstairs, in the gallery’s main-floor exhibit space, Asheville artist Hoss Haley’s forged-steel spheres and cast-concrete houses seem to sink into the hardwood floors. His colossal steel “canvases” hang heavily from the walls. The exhibit, titled Gravity, shows through Aug. 23 — smack in the middle of Blue Spiral 1’s commercially critical summer season.
“It’s a lot of huge work that’s hard to sell,” Cram admits.
Asheville’s scion of the arts seems unconcerned, however. “Hoss has had shows in New York, Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta, New Mexico,” says Cram, rattling them off. “He’s giving me a chance here in Asheville.” He pauses. “God, that sounds way too freaking humble.”
Despite Cram’s proclamations of Haley’s significance (and the artist’s disconcerting resemblance to George Clooney), Hoss Haley comes across as Midwest modest. He grew up in Dodge City, Kan., roping cattle, racing motorcycles and raising wheat. “Living on a farm, I had access to basic welding equipment and got a lot of direct experience that way,” he notes.
Haley was making sculpture — “cowboys, horses, that kind of thing” — by the time he was a teenager. He won his first commission right out of high school, “a 132-foot-tall wheat sculpture” that still graces the offices of the High Plains Journal.
“I probably haven’t done that well — financially –since,” confesses Haley. “But I realized then that I had to leave Kansas. Otherwise, I’d probably still be making wheat sculptures or cows.”
Despite creating steadily since those days, Haley admits that “I’ve only been able to say, comfortably, for the past five years that I’m an artist.” He still doesn’t say it loudly. He doesn’t dress in artistic solid black. He does not drive a hip, vintage car.
And, says Haley, he never sets out to “work on some kind of message.”
There was a time, Haley explains, “when I thought I had to make work about something — abortion or the human condition or whatever. But I’ve come around to seeing that it doesn’t work that way, because it always came out heavy-handed and cliched.”
Now, he continues, “I have to trust my intuition — if I wake up feeling like I have to cast houses in concrete, that’s what I do.”
Haley began casting and welding the pieces that constitute the bulk of Gravity back in January, during the buildup to the war in Iraq. By April, as the war began to wind down, he was working on the exhibit full time: Assembling tidy rows of cast-concrete houses. Painting eerily similar houses on the flat horizons of sheets of rusting, enamel-coated metal. Soldering strips of steel into neat spheres that, the artist comments, are “like perfectly trimmed bushes” dotting the surreal suburban sameness represented by the rest of the exhibit.
“Only now can I look back and see what was going on in my mind,” he reveals.
If it must be about something, Gravity is concerned with the American Dream; or, as Haley puts it, “the idyllic, cookie-cutter-house subdivision [where] everyone [gets] the house, the car, the drive, the picket fence.”
More specifically, his work explores “the underlying feeling of the fallacy of that idea,” the artist explains. “How nature and events have played against it.”
And yet, he continues: “A lot of people are still hanging onto that dream, and the more it’s not possible, the more they hang onto it. It’s the person driving the big SUV with the American flag pasted on the back window, and it’s as if they’re saying, ‘We will do whatever it takes so that we can have our American Dream, even if we have to convince ourselves that it is for some other reason than to have this dream, than to drive this SUV.'” Even, Haley suggests obliquely, if it means invading another country that just happens to sit on top of a whole lot of oil.
“We’re always trying to create order,” Haley explains, “but there’s another element trying to create disorder. That’s why I like to use steel — because it rusts, it shows age. In the simplest terms, things deteriorate.”
The pieces in Gravity are balanced on that fulcrum between order and chaos, direction and deterioration. Haley’s large paintings on squares of steel depict careful grids of homogenized homes set against a flat, lonely horizon. Rust seeps through scratches in the enamel, marring the careful exactness of the landscape.
“That horizon line is a big thing in his work,” notes Cram. “Hoss comes from a farmer’s background, the Midwest — that puts him right dab in the middle of America, literally and figuratively.”
Even so, Haley isn’t sure his art will resonate with Middle America.
“Having been away [from Kansas] long enough, I can see how my work has become a commentary on that place. But the more I think my work is about my youth and where I grew up, the more they think it is not.
“Dodge City still lives on, this idealized myth of the Wild West and the cattle drives — a time that was so minute and that maybe wasn’t really the way we like to remember it,” he continues.
“My dad thinks there’s no one who can do what I do better,” Haley says with a laugh. “He’s always telling me about someone back home who would love [a sculpture of] a horse or cowboy.”
Or perhaps a pretty oil painting of a landscape that may soon succumb to Middle America’s pursuit of its modern myths.
Gravity, featuring metal and mixed-media drawings and sculpture by Hoss Haley, shows at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave.) through Sunday, Aug. 23. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12-5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, call 251-0202 or go to www.bluespiral1.com.