“How far can I push it without breaking the spell?” Studio Visit with Hayley Quentin

Hayley Quentin’s paintings challenge the conventional representation of male beauty and eroticism in art. Her ethereal facture is characterized by the interplay of diffuse and saturated oil colors, working together to create a lens through which the viewer sees the painted body. From jewel-like watercolors to larger-than-life-size portraiture, Hayley repurposes traditional art making processes to explore her vision of male representation in contemporary art.

Hayley has also worked in film as Assistant Director and in art production while collaborating with fellow artist and director Juliacks in Helsinki and Lyon.

Born in Los Angeles, Hayley studied at Otis College of Art and Design, where she received a BFA with Honors. She has since spent 7 years living and working in Europe, mainly in the UK and France. She has recently returned to Los Angeles where she currently resides.


AMM: Tell us a little about your artistic background. When did you know you wanted to become an artist and how did you find your artistic voice?

HQ: There was never a doubt in my mind that I would make art. I was very lucky to have that creative desire fostered as a young person, which led me to study Fine Art at Otis College of Art and Design here in Los Angeles. That’s when I started to challenge conventional representation of male beauty and eroticism in my work.

My artistic voice is inherently a part of me and how I see the world. In a way it feels easy: if you’re an artist you do the things you like, and you’re never going to be ‘done’. In other ways it is very difficult: technique, subject, medium, concept – I’m trying to find the moment where a piece becomes more than the sum of its parts.

AMM: We are inspired by your international background! You mentioned that you have spent seven years living and working in Europe, mainly in the UK and France and then returned back to LA. Tell us about your travel transitions and how they impacted your work?

HQ: After I graduated from art school I moved to London, in 2009. I had no idea what I was doing – I didn’t plan anything! Honestly, it was really difficult at first, and I have to say there were several years where I didn’t really make any significant work. I eventually got a studio in Brixton, in South London, but I was still only working sporadically; some studies and a handful of finished pieces. The time when I wasn’t painting wasn’t empty, though: I never stopped looking, I was looking at everything.

However, I did collaborate with another artist and dear friend of mine, Juliacks, as Assistant Director on a couple of films; one shot in Helsinki, Finland and another in Lyon, France. I think that break from making my own work was good for me. I figured out what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it.

After working on those films I decided to move to France and make a conscious effort to rededicate myself to my art practice. So while living in a tiny apartment in a country where I didn’t speak the language, where I didn’t even have a studio (I used a corner of my apartment) – I painted more in a single summer than I had in the previous 5 years. That was a renaissance for me.

I moved back to Los Angeles in 2016. I feel there is so much potential in everything! But at the same time there is a terrifying rise in nationalism and anti-globalism that is very sad to see, because travelling has been very formative to my experiences not only as an artist but also as a human.

AMM: It seems like travel did indeed really influence your work. What differences did you notice between the European and American art scenes?

HQ: This is a difficult question to answer! I don’t know if I can fully quantify those differences because I only have my own experience. So, here are just a few of my observations (which probably have more to do with how productive or involved I was as an artist at the time). London probably has the most easily accessible museums and galleries, which is incredible to me – anyone can appreciate art and I feel that more people in general are interested in seeing art as a part of their daily lives. In comparison, contemporary art felt like more of a niche interest in Lyon – however, the Lyon Biennale in 2015 was absolutely incredible. Ultimately, though, I think Los Angeles is the best city in America for contemporary art and I’m very glad to be living here now.

AMM: It’s great to know that you’ve found your perfect place!
How would you describe the subject matter of your work and what is the most important thing the viewer should take away? 

HQ: On the surface the subject is simple: I paint male bodies, faces, hands. But any time there is a representation of a male nude, even academic, people become uncomfortable. I love to play up the relationship between viewer and piece, and the internal conflict this sometimes elicits. I want the viewer to feel compelled to look, despite their potential uneasiness with the subject matter, all because I’ve made pieces so beautiful that they can’t look away. Hopefully this will lead the audience to question their initial discomfort.

In a way, though, my subjects are just vehicles for the bigger ideas of decadence, voyeurism, and pleasure that I explore in my work. In terms of technique, my paintings could be classified as aesthetic, or decadent, or at least embodying many of those elements: meaning nature is crude, beauty is definitive, authoritative, essential, and art is for pleasure.

AMM: Does personal history work its way into your practice?

HQ: Only indirectly, in the big picture sense. My work is inevitably influenced by my own set of life experiences and perspectives – the places I’ve lived, what art history I was exposed to, my privilege to study art formally, my experiences being a woman in the western world – those things all influence and contribute to my work conceptually and to my creative process.

AMM: Who are the figures in your paintings? How do you find your models?

HQ: All my subjects are people I know, some better than others. When you know someone, as opposed to hiring a model, there is a relationship there, however small. My degree of relationship with the person influences how comfortable he is, how comfortable I am, how awkward he will be when I pose him – however, I like the poses being a little awkward. And even if you know someone really well, trust me, they’ll still get a little awkward when they model – which is kind of nice. Maybe viewers think the subjects in my paintings are romantic partners but they aren’t. I’ve never used a romantic partner as a model, not even my husband. I think that would be a little bit boring.

To be honest when I’m working I kind of forget my models are individuals; in my mind I’m looking at lines, composition, value, and color. Take for example my friend Loren, who’s been the subject of a lot of my work: when people who know him see my work they’ll say “Oh, it’s a painting of Loren!” I never think of my paintings as representations of a specific person, so I have to think: “Oh right, that is who that is,” and it can be jarring! When I’m painting, I feel I have ownership over the form I’m creating and I forget about the original owner.

AMM: What does your perfect day in the studio look like? 

HQ: When I first get to the studio I pick out what I’m going to listen to – I listen to podcasts, rarely music. This sets the mood for the studio session and signifies the start of the working process for me. However, the first artistic action I take is setting up my palette. I take a while mixing my colors, usually about an hour. It’s the first ritual of the studio. It’s methodic (and almost meditative), and spending the time in this transition stage helps to prepare my mind and body for work. After that I just start painting, building up in layers and layers and layers. I’m an incredibly clean painter and don’t make a lot of mess. There are some days where the painting seems to come out of my hands fully formed almost without any effort, and then there are some days where I really have to work for it. And despite how long I spend planning my paintings in advance, sometimes it surprises me which ones challenge me the most. The days that I finish a painting are the best. Conversely, starting a painting is always the hardest.

But not every day is for painting. I also use my studio for all the different aspects of being an emerging artist: documenting my work, maintaining my website, writing blog posts, photographing models, lots of various admin… Having a space designated for work actually helps me to be more productive, because the reality is that being an artist is more than just creating art.

AMM: What are you currently working on and what are your goals for your paintings?

HQ: Most of 2016 I spent working on my ‘Pink’ series. Pink is such a loaded color, especially in the context of gender. I explored the application of using this color sparingly and as the predominant color of a painting. As I was working on this series I also discovered that pink is a terrifying, almost creepy color when used in the absence of other colors to represent the body. As I mentioned before I work from my own photographs as opposed to a live model. I spend a fair amount of time working on the post-production of these photos, experimenting with changes in color development, saturation, exposure, layers of distortion. I’m creating a layer of removal between the viewer and the painting, the painted figure seems unattainable and I find that appealing. To be clear, though, all of this digital distortion doesn’t dictate exactly what the painting will exactly look like. There are aspects of the painting process that can’t be prepared digitally – making parts of the body completely flat, specific strokes that create a mottled background, the diaphanous or blunt application of paint… I still like having some surprises as I work.

I also just started an additional new series of nine paintings, which I haven’t yet named, from some photos I took years ago, back in London. In this new series I’m taking the ideas I have always worked with and I’m pushing them even further – how flat can I make a part of the body while still keeping the overall figure representational? How much saturation of one color can the painting take while still being believable? I use this distortion to signify illusion – because painting is always an illusion, and now I want to see how far I can push it without breaking the spell.

AMM: It sounds exciting! We can’t wait to see them. Our last question would be: name a few favorite artists or people who inspire you.

HQ: To pull from art history I am unendingly fascinated by JMW Turner – not for his content but for his concepts. Another is John Singer Sargent, but for his lesser known collection of watercolor male nudes. Moving to contemporary artists I am inspired by Elizabeth Peyton, Luc Tuymans, and Wolfgang Tillmans, especially Peyton’s work – I can’t get enough.

Find out more about the artist: www.hayleyquentin.com

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