Houston carries its weight in the American art world these days, and the Blaffer Art Museum on the University of Houston campus is proving it. The museum is presenting a major exhibition titled Hugh Hayden: Boogey Men, now through September 4, featuring a suite of amazing pieces guaranteed to haunt. Thanks to the artist’s talent across various media, visitors will experience anthropomorphic forms that explore our relationship with the natural world. It is soft, sensual, and unyielding—and it’s a must-see.
Artist Hugh Hayden was born in Texas but lives and works in New York City today. The talented Texan’s creations can be found in the collections of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art; the Princeton University Art Museum; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami; and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York.
Hayden, Black Texan, was born in Dallas in 1983. “I am from all along the Gulf Coast, and my mother is from Louisiana. I think that is one of the reasons I use a lot of bald cypress from the Gulf swamps in my artwork. It’s a wood that holds significance for me,” he revealed in an interview with the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
“Another of the reasons I gravitate to cypress is because it lends itself to the human form—skeletons, nerves, and circulatory systems. The bald cypress tree also has a place in American history and lore. It’s the mystery of the deep Southern swamp, where they grow. Some people have even suggested they played a role in lynchings,” Hayden concluded quietly.
His Blaffer exhibition features new sculptures that reflect the significance and timeliness of Hayden’s voice and view of history. In works that range in scale from modest to monumental, the artist explores how we project human vices and ambitions onto worlds both natural and unnatural.
Boogey Men also explores the theme of camouflage—evincing Hayden’s continued interest in how humans use materials to blend in, obscure, and imagine. The result is fascinating, enlightening, and even haunting.
Formally trained as an architect, Hayden employs laborious processes—woodcarving, metalwork, industrial fabrication—that result in dynamic points of view. He is renowned for his ability to take disparate pieces of wood and manipulate them to reveal complex meanings.
The Boogey Men exhibition is spread among multiple galleries that hint at suburban residential interiors and exteriors, highlighting the artist’s interest in socially produced spaces as well as the fraught issues surrounding “The American Dream” and notions of idealism, culture, wealth, agency, and success.
“A lot of my work investigates the concept of the American Dream,” Hayden explained in an interview for an Art Basel event. “I mean, the American Dream is a desirable place to be, but at the same time it is difficult to inhabit. For example, I might be making an ordinary ladder with sensual wood, and it will be covered in a soft, seductive material. But it will also be protected by thorns, making it almost impossible to use.”
At the center of his Houston exhibit sits its namesake sculpture: Boogey Man. This ominous yet cartoonish work is nearly the size of a Ford Crown Victoria—a car marketed to police departments for 20 years—which underscores its real-life reference. The silhouette of Boogey Man projects a shrouded police car with a pair of cut-outs for eyes. Here, Hayden evokes a child’s Halloween ghost costume created by cutting holes out of a bedsheet, as well as the more terrifying image of a hooded Klansman. The image drifts between malice and make-believe, inflicting terror on its subjects.
Tyler Blackwell, the Blaffer Museum’s associate curator, believes that the work of Hugh Hayden should be on every art lover’s radar. “I have been following Hugh’s work for a number of years, and it felt important to bring an exhibition to our campus and Houston audiences,” Blackwell explains. “His work explores the pursuit of the American Dream as well as what it means to grow up as a Black boy in Texas. Hugh’s meticulously crafted sculptures expertly navigate and intertwine complex ideas about American history, culture, and ambition with personal experience. We are lucky to show his work as his career rapidly ascends!”
What: Hugh Hayden: Boogey Men
When: Through Sept. 4
Where: Blaffer Art Museum, 4173 Elgin St.
This article appears in the June 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.