Hugh Hayden Explores the Thorny Sides of the American Dream (W Magazine)
At the eccentrically daft dinner parties that Hugh Hayden stages regularly, guests are showered with hospitality and hobbled by irksome constraints. Much thought and care goes into these culinary installations, which he has been presenting in different forms since high school. Using his training as an architect, Hayden, now 37, once designed a set of interlocking tables with semicircular cutouts that enclosed diners, who were seated on spinning stools. In an earlier year, he bound and blindfolded his guests, and spoon-fed them. He usually dictates a dress code—most recently, white shirts and black pants. “They’re a lot of fun, but it requires you to submit to the experience,” said Kayode Ojo, a sculptor, and a friend, of the soirées. “He’s a very generous host. It’s almost a lot of pressure as a guest, as well. You’re a bit trapped.”
The uncomfortable reality of interacting with a space that’s not quite what you had envisioned is a theme that runs through much of Hayden’s art. His sculptures include church pews upholstered with bristles, a carved wooden football helmet with internal spikes, and an Adirondack chair with protruding limbs. “All of my work is about the American dream, whether it’s a table that’s hard to sit at or a thorny school desk,” Hayden said. “It’s a dream that is seductive, but difficult to inhabit.”
He was speaking at the end of August in his studio in the South Bronx, a space he was ready to relinquish for an East Williamsburg studio almost three times as large. He was living the American dream, subcategory Successful Young Artist. On his agenda was finishing the pieces that would be displayed in “Boogey Men,” his solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, opening November 30. In Madison Square Park, which has staged outdoor exhibitions of such established artists as Martin Puryear, Teresita Fernández, and Maya Lin, he will install 100 grade-school desk chairs that sprout intertwining branches, in a piece he calls Brier Patch, opening in January 2022. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, he is co-curating another New York show, “Black Atlantic,” featuring five artists, himself included, that will be installed at Brooklyn Bridge Park in May.
“When I was younger, I would say, ‘I’d love to have an exhibition,’ and never say no to anyone,” he observed. “Now I have to choose between projects. I’m trying to sustain it. Being an emerging artist, no one can tell you what to expect or how to be successful.” Earnest and affable, Hayden speaks with an uncommon candor. “Hugh wants to become a real art superstar,” said his friend Hannah Levy, a sculptor whose studio is in the same building as his in the Bronx. “When you talk to most people about their career, they won’t admit that, because it’s a little embarrassing. He doesn’t have embarrassment about that. And I think he’s achieving it.”