Progression of Art
The Prison of History
An oppressive grey wall draws our eye in to the scene, with barely visible brickwork glinting slightly in dim light. In its center is a small window covered by black prison bars, closed off by darkness, shutting out any connection with the world beyond. Black shadows close in, like a boundary around the wall, further emphasizing the grim claustrophobia.
This painting typifies Halley's early career tableau, in which he painted a series of stifling brick walls in dark colors with barred windows resembling those of a prison cell. Halley was fascinated by the urban environment that equally closed in all around him in New York and the modular structures of living that dominated the cityscape. These early paintings mimic the isolated and oppressive nature of his own living situation, where windows look out onto the urban environment rather than green, or nature-filled space.
Yet the visual language he adopted here was also a play on the modernist geometries of Minimalist art, echoing the same order and refinement of abstract artists such as Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman, who deliberately reduced and distilled their shapes and colors into the sparest and simplest forms. In contrast to these artists, Halley brings references to figuration back into his gridded composition, arranging his panels into a pictorial image, hinting at the familiar and enforcing connection with the viewer.
He deliberately chose to paint prison cells during this time to highlight the incarcerating limitations of modernist art, suggesting reducing art to its simplest of forms was a form of imprisonment that prevented it from being free, and that modernist artists had effectively reached the 'endgame,' or the end of the line, with nowhere left to go. He wrote, "The idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement." This cynical critique of modernism became a defining feature of Halley's art and informed new attitudes towards abstraction for generations to come, as seen in the mock-Minimalist installations of Damien Hirst and the dystopic sculptures of Rachel Whiteread. Art historian and writer Morgan Falconer observed, "Peter Halley is looking at geometric abstraction with very new eyes."
Acrylic on Canvas
Prison & Cell with Smokestack & Conduit
Two fluorescent squares of yellow emerge with radiant light from a deep grey backdrop, humming with electric energy. Each square resembles a living space, revealed by the sparest additions; on the left, a row of bars suggests the window of a prison cell, while on the right a small chimney peeks out, turning the square into a house. An underground conduit connects the two buildings, suggesting an exchange of power.
Halley made this work during a transitional time when he was moving beyond earlier paintings of brick walls toward a more radical language of coded signs and symbols. Still finding inspiration from his confined living situation in New York City, the simplified, boxed forms suggest modular, isolated habitats. Here he deliberately combined what he calls a "sickly" yellow with somber shades of grey and black to create a bleak, existential mood inspired by the writings of Samuel Beckett. The cable running between the two buildings was significant for Halley, as he explains, "In Cell with Smokestack and Conduit I imagined that the conduits were carrying something that illuminated the cells, a kind of Duchampian illuminating gas which was then emitted from the smokestack."
In other similar works Halley experimented with illuminating the underground cable, but here he deliberately left it dark, suggesting our underlying urban connection via more sinister or destructive forces. He writes, "I wanted to see what would happen if I put the prison and the cell with smokestack together, connected by a conduit that's no longer illuminated but rather dark. This painting was a particularly bleak picture of two different isolated spaces linked inextricably together."
Halley's exploration of ambient light in separate, isolated, or imprisoned units is now recognized as a sort of pre-commentary on digital and Internet technology's contribution to driving humans further apart. As writer Max Lankin points out, "(His paintings) emerged in the era's moment of cool irony, both a postmodernist critique of geometric abstraction and an indictment of how we've arranged ourselves in the post-industrialist West, allowing instant connection to replace the messier human kind."
Day-Glo Acrylic and Acrylic on Canvas
Two Cells with Circulating Conduit
Two black squares emerge from an acid bright backdrop enveloped electric, ambient light. Joining them are two conduits in electric shades of blue and green. This work continued the evolution of Halley's signature style, featuring simplified squares and rectangles of color by presenting the geometric forms as "cells" or "units" - a distinct addition to his own coded language suggesting living spaces combined by underlying exchanges of energy.
Early works in this period had a bleak, existential quality, but Halley was gradually moving towards the use of brighter colors and a more optimistic outlook by the mid-1980s. This reflected his changing circumstances as his art became more widely recognized and appreciated and he began to feel more connected to the lively, thriving art scene in and around New York's East Village. He commented, "In these paintings of '86, the vocabulary became very pop, aggressive, and much more animated. The optimism and excitement of that work definitely reflected the dynamism I felt about being involved in the scene oriented around the galleries in the East Village. I felt that my life was becoming much more pop. I began to identify with the cell as a transformer of cultural processes of which I was a part, and not just an endpoint."
Halley also attached a wider cultural meaning to works such as this one, creating a critical commentary on the insular and self-perpetuating nature of twentieth century art following the rise of modernism. He observed, "Psychologically, it was about a sense of catharsis and a transformation of something very bleak into something that had more of a sense of movement. Even though it was still confining, it was more optimistic. It also allowed me to represent pictorially the sense of closure and self-referentiality that I was ascribing to fate 20th century culture in general."
Day-Glo Acrylic and Acrylic on Canvas
A Monstrous Paradox
In this four-panel artwork, intersecting geometric shapes mirror and repeat one another in a dizzying array of color and light. Unusual, kitschy colors rub up against one another, creating a discordant, Op Art effect.
Halley deliberately mirrors the language of Color Field artists including Barnett Newman and Frank Stella in works such as this one, emulating their careful balance of geometric shapes and striking slabs of color. But in contrast to the unemotional language of Minimalism, Halley deliberately references the living and breathing urban environment, likening his "cells" to living spaces connected by cables of electricity. This work was one of many that introduced a bold experimentation with color, combining the synthetic brightness of Day-Glo acrylic with more traditional, subdued tones. The artist writes, "I began to juxtapose and intermix the Day-Glo colors that I had always used with other kinds of traditional colors to see what would happen. I wanted to see, if by operating in a non-didactic manner, I could create a space and light that was more intense than that which I had created by sticking to a didactic program."
Halley also applied the Roll-a-Tex, a paint medium which lends a grainy, sand-like texture to the surface, to select panels. In doing so, he likened his act of painting to that of a common house painter or decorator rather than an elevated "artiste," thereby parodying the pretentions of modernist art. Writer Julia Felsenthal observed this interplay between wry humor and electro color combination when writing, "His paintings resemble LSD-fueled abstractions, or possibly cartoonishly bright, invitingly tactile corporate flow charts."
Day-Glo Acrylic, Acrylic and Roll-a-Tex on Canvas
Peter Halley at Stuart Shave/Modern Art
In this installation at Stuart Shave/Modern Art Gallery in London Halley placed a large, iridescent painting onto a wallpapered backdrop printed with a design resembling the complex networks of a computer chip. The wallpaper design repeated elements from the painting as if running on a perpetual digital loop. It also tied the painting in with the box-like surrounding architecture, creating an immersive continuity of pattern and shape. Color plays a vital role in this installation - the acid bright tones in the painting lend it the quality of an electric generator that seems to hum with pulsating energy, while yellow and pink carry the same life force across the gallery walls.
Curator and writer Jo Melvin notes the mind-altering effects of Halley's intense color patterns, observing, "In Peter Halley's paintings colors clash and conjoin to create a dizzying sensation. At times the optical effect created by the Day-Glo's luminosity is so jarring that the paintings almost hurt the eye. He celebrates effects such as the plethora of color in neon signs, internet surfing, and our image-saturated media world."
She also observes the inherent contradiction of his practice, which on the one hand seems to celebrate the digital world, yet emphasize the physicality of the painted object, noting, "The three-dimensional quality of Halley's work asserts the object status of the paintings in a way that photographic reproduction simply cannot represent."
Since the late 1990s Halley has consistently expanded beyond canvas to explore his trademark motifs of grids, squares, and lines in a range of new contexts, including sculpture and site-specific installations. Moving beyond the confines of the two-dimensional has allowed Halley to extend the circuitry and flow of his earlier paintings onto a much larger scale, mirroring the way that the ever present flux of digital data infiltrates and surrounds our daily lives.
Installation view - London
In the Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center, Portland, Halley covered the walls with a prison-patterned wallpaper, made from a series of purple bar motifs floating across a mint green backdrop. Deliberately playing with the Minimalist notion of difference and repetition here, he stretched, squashed, and upturned his trademark three-rung bar design into a series of experimental variations.
Since the late 1990s Halley has been producing wallpaper patterns based on the geometric designs of his earlier paintings. Prison bars have been a recurring motif that symbolize the confinements and restrictions of contemporary urban living, but they also represent the limitations of geometric, Modernist art, poking fun at the spiritual sanctity artists such as Mark Rothko and Donald Judd placed on their refined minimalist language. The oppressive nature of these prison bars on repeat across three gallery walls deliberately creates a sense of oppressive claustrophobia, as writer Richard Speer points out, "Stacked one upon one another like an infinitude of tiger cages, the prisons exert a collective intimidation that verges on the sadistic."
The immersive and all-encompassing circuitry of Halley's wallpaper motifs also reflect how infiltrated technology has become within our daily lives, surrounding almost every aspect of the contemporary urban experience. Speer highlights this dramatic leap from two-dimensional painting to three-dimensional space in Halley's practice, observing, "Whereas Halley's acrylic paintings present discrete diagrams of contemporary experience, Prison expands into vaulting architectural space, rendering the exhibition hall itself a life-sized simulacrum indistinguishable from reality."
Wallpaper Design, Installation Detail