The Lionheart Five: An Interview with Jo Hay

Susan Grissom
Jun 4, 2016 3:44PM

Five questions we ask every Lionheart Gallery artist.

Photo Credit: Carolyn Kramer

British figurative painter Jo Hay studied and worked in Manhattan for years before making her current home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She is widely known for large-scale paintings that explore sexuality, gender, and identity, as in her self-portrait Dodger, which placed as a semi-finalist in the 2015 BP Portrait Award. Hay is fascinated by human psychological and biological perception of gender, and her interest in subjects with both male and female characteristics was first inspired by the glittering androgyny of British glam rock musicians in the 1970s. Her exhibition Rabbitude marks a departure from these portraits; it showcases new works in a series that Hay has continued to explore since her graduate school days at the New York Academy of Art.

1) Name one of your most defining moments as an artist.

Jo Hay: The day my painting Milk and Blood was chosen by Madonna as she live curated an online show for her Art for Freedom project was definitely a highlight. The painting was from a series of nine heads that I had made for a solo show entitled Betwixt, with the gender in each being uncertain. I used various source materials such as photographs, paintings, and life to make each painting; they were composites and not a portrait of a specific individual. During the live online curation, Madonna, who has blazed a trail for decades with gender manipulation, typed a comment of approval below my painting. It was a tremendous moment of acknowledgement for me.

2) Do you collect anything?

JH: Books, although I don’t so much collect as accumulate them. I like to own the books I read. They reassure me in some way with their constant silent chatter. And I often refer to them for my work—I will sometimes just look over their spines reminding myself of who I was at different periods of time. Like shoes, books tell you a tremendous amount about a person.

Jo Hay's books

3) If you could choose anyone—and we mean anyone—whom would you pick as a mentor?

JH: I would choose the painter Diego Velázquez. He’s a general favorite, but he is also a painter’s painter. He used various techniques of paint application, often in the same piece, to solve the question of how to create the illusion of believable form, most often human. He developed a breath-taking shorthand in paint for describing complicated textures such as lace. Close up, the paint appears as abstract blobs; but when you stand back, a complex intricacy appears. His utterly sophisticated command of color through paint that recorded the effects of light came way ahead of the Impressionists. This remarkable paint handling coupled with dynamic pictorial compositions produced a unique and spectacular force of life in his work. He is truly a master.

4) What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

JH: Whatever delivers the music. Preferably my old boombox plugged into the computer rather than an iPhone with headphones. I love to listen to music through headphones but I can’t paint so freely that way. I need physical and emotional space between the music and myself. I like music at all times when I’m painting. I usually play upbeat tunes to keep me on my toes and to support a general feeling of expansion. I want to create an environment to help me stay relaxed and nimble yet excited and fearless so I can constantly find different marks in my paint application.

Velázquez meets Disco in Jo Hay’s studio

5) Tell us about one piece of art in this show. Describe your inspiration, your process, and what it means to you.

JH: Each composition of the rabbit paintings in this exhibition is based on a traditional, formal portrait pose. Wanting a variety of attitudes for Rabbitude, I was keen to pose the head or the body differently in each canvas. The eye is always a very important component in my work, as I find it truly is the window to the soul. Blue Jean is based on a strict profile pose such as that in Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino. In a human profile painting, the eye is largely forced to stay in line with the head, looking straight off the canvas so as not to appear wandering and disturb the viewer. Consequently the painted subject’s relationship with the viewer is much less intimate. As a rabbit’s eyes are positioned on the side of its head for survival, the painted rabbit profile allows for a strikingly different composition while maintaining solid eye contact with the viewer.

Jo Hay giving an artist’s talk at the opening reception for Rabbitude, The Lionheart Gallery, March 2016

"Rabbitude" was on view at The Lionheart Gallery from March 20, 2016-May 1, 2016.

Susan Grissom