Photography Roeg Cohen

By Emily Bode

At the opening of Hugh Hayden’s second solo show at Lisson New York earlier this summer, the artist wore a custom Bode jersey, as did all of his assembled fabricators and friends. It was a hot sticky night, but a good one nonetheless, much like the intimate dinner parties that Hayden used to routinely bake his apartment for—in the name of art and company. For proof, one party-goer tweeted: “Lisson party was great. Hotel terrace, talk and ambition, painters, supermodels, lightning storm, well-staffed bars, mountain of healthy food, no desserts, all paid for. Just the sort of art world I’d like to see return.”

Maybe this isn’t exactly Hayden’s vision of hospitality, but this Gatsby-like persona is one that resonates with Emily Bode, who remembers the beginnings of the artist’s exhibition-making in New York and his dinner performances. The two met sometime in college or right after although they can’t quite remember when. Both of them, despite their diverging practices—as a fashion designer and trained-architect-turned-fine-artist respectively—share an unabiding passion for looking at the anthropological clues embedded in the objects around us and what they say about us.

Working out of a studio in the Bronx, Hayden is a center of gravity constantly orbited by Mars, his dog, who accompanies him almost everywhere. In “Huey,” Hayden’s latest exhibition, he had to fight Mars’s affection for wood to transform the Chelsea white cube into a chapel replete with ebony carved reliquaries of leisure and labor, rattan basketball net altars, and pre-spiked pews. Bode and Hayden also had to contend with Mars when they sat down the week before the party to discuss the new show, the origins of their friendship, and the joys of Lincoln Logs.

EMILY BODE: This is the second studio [of yours] I've ever been to.

HUGH HAYDEN: Bona fide studio with a lease I guess.

BODE: Right. You first moved up to this neighborhood while at Columbia?

HAYDEN: I moved right after Columbia. It wasn't on my radar to be in the Bronx. I had never really been to the Bronx, but actually, geographically, it was very close to where I was already living in Harlem and relatively affordable. It also made more sense to go to the Bronx than to go to Brooklyn when I'm living in Harlem. Then it was just a virtue of Columbia being already close. I could walk.

Now, I don't need public transit. My needs have changed. I want to be next to the freeway. This studio is fairly close to the freeway. Living off the FDR makes it easy to get downtown.

I think Brooklyn is dead. No offense. I don't know where you all live, but Brooklyn is more than dead [laughter]. I used to always live off the L train. But now there's so much happening downtown, it feels like, post-COVID, it became a more centralized meeting place or modern watering hole.

Brooklyn was always so spread out, and with the pandemic, that worked against it in a way, because it wasn't a place to go, versus being in the Lower East Side or Chinatown you’ll inevitably run into someone.

BODE: You're in a five-block radius of everybody else. I'm actually not totally sure when we met.

HAYDEN: Maybe 2015? When I had that birthday party with the sunglasses.

BODE: But I had met you before that, where did you live?

Hayden: In the south. It was actually a terrible apartment. It was good, artistically, but a low point of my personal living scenarios. It was a sub-level apartment, technically, it was like half something and it's on the ground, like the first unit.

BODE: I lived in one of those. Everybody has to live in one of those because it feels really cool at the time that you might live on the ground floor in New York. Then after living there, you're like, "Oh, this is why you want to be high up."

HAYDEN: I met you though, when you had the apartment where you had the flag on the fire escape or you had a one-bedroom studio. It's something with a balcony or a roof.

BODE: I had a roof. I think I met you before you started showing. Because I remember you going to Scotland. But not knowing you too well.  Do you still have those t-shirts? That's the work that I remember the first work seeing of yours, the t-shirts from the toddler all the way up. I remember the colorful one.

HAYDEN: Oh, yes. The first ones were colorful ones. Well, initially I worked with a range of clothes, but then it became only American Apparel. I called it “Lust for Fashion” like this play on fast fashion. It was layering materials from this company that made every size of American fast clothing from toddler to 3XL on top of each other like a Russian matryoshka doll. They become this lasagna of people's clothes.

BODE: I love that metaphor because when you cut into it, you see it.

HAYDEN: You have this grain that tracks the transformation of someone's body. That's actually what got me into carving wood. It was looking at this transformation of the body but at the scale of a tree and at the scale of the earth.

BODE: Those were cast. They were in plaster or resin or something?

HAYDEN: They were in Aquaresin which I call 21st century plaster. The first one, like the little baby on the inside, would be stuffed with plastic bags, coat it in plaster, let it harden, and take out the bags. Then I would start dressing it in the next size up, pulling them together with more plaster.

BODE: How many layers?

HAYDEN: Sometimes they got too fat.

BODE: Like you couldn't fit the shirt over?

HAYDEN: American Apparel made 16 sizes but they didn't make every single piece of clothing in every size.

BODE: It's interesting because, looking at a company like that, I remember thinking some of these basics like those cotton t-shirts made in America, you're going to have them for the rest of your life. And then ironically the entire company disintegrated.

HAYDEN: I've been wearing American Apparel lately. I still have a lot of those shirts. I mean, they're getting more ratty. But I loved having the range of colors. [Interrupted by dog] "Mars put that down". That’s another thing we are doing for the show. we're making mini Lincoln Logs. There's going to be a Lincoln Log ebony cabin. Mars loves the wood.

BODE: Did you play with Lincoln Logs as a kid?

HAYDEN: A little bit, but I remember building with these other things more. They look like a reddish-brown cardboard. They probably weren't as big, but I remember them visually being like this, a foot and half. I also had Legos. My brother is four years older than me and so at some point, it became like a catching up thing where I needed to have what he had, which was video games. It forced me to skip over some parts of my childhood because we were having this quarrel on achievements.

BODE: So the Lincoln Logs have nothing to do with your personal nostalgia for childhood?

HAYDEN: Well, a little bit, but I only played with those at school. We didn't own Lincoln Logs. The main toys for me were dinosaurs and Ninja Turtles. Lincoln Logs were something you have at school, but you never have a full set. There's always missing pieces or someone would knock it over. They’re too easy to knock over. Maybe they’re more communal but I became an architect to fix those things.

BODE: [chuckles] Yes.

HAYDEN: It also wasn't as intuitive how they would go together. Even trying to put this together just to see what pieces I need to make, the way you're supposed to put them together isn't necessarily fun.

BODE: I remember playing with those for hours. We also had little cowboys.

HAYDEN: That came with it?

BODE: I don't actually think that they came with the set, but we stored them together. Are you guys having late nights and things right now?

HAYDEN: I need six hours of sleep to be active.

BODE: You know what I remember about you when I was in college was you did this crazy sleep schedule.

HAYDEN: It wasn't all necessarily intentional, I just had my full-time architecture job.

BODE: No, but I think you were trying this napping thing out.

HAYDEN: Oh, I was doing the Bulletproof method.

BODE: Right. It wasn't napping, it was intermitten fasting. You've always been interested in living as experience or something, right? Especially with your job at Starbucks and the dinners you used to host.

HAYDEN: I like the idea of heightening the experience of something basic and not just forcing it to be simply sustenance.

BODE: When was the last time that you had dinner? Or do you think you'll do those again? Those weren't necessarily an art practice of yours or were they?

HAYDEN: Of course actually they are. But now I call them culinary installations as a way to incorporate them in my practice because I’m more visible.

BODE: It definitely felt you were developing something.

HAYDEN: The last one I did was here for my birthday and that was the first time I did it at the studio. It made sense. I have more space here. But I realized that one I don’t actually need to cook anymore.  I could get them outsourced. Because at the end of the day I don't want to be running a restaurant, I want to participate in it, and not be like, "Oh, gosh. Is the dish going to be burned or something?"

BODE: The one that I went to at your old live-work studio, you were running around and cooking the entire time and like plating everything. The only other food works that I know of are the cast iron skillets, which I think are the most genius.

HAYDEN: I would say the dinners are still a whole another part of my practice because I only recently started bringing in more sculpture things that are food-related. There have been the skillets, which for me, were this idea of the origins of America through the lens of cooking. Then the tables, but not the tables that were used for the dinners. I started making these tables that were hard to sit at. They have thorns coming out of them.

BODE: I saw those.

HAYDEN: One of them, not the first one, but one of the earlier ones, was based off of my childhood kitchen table, which is just this round oak table that was really popular when I was growing up. Now, that most people think is ugly. There's one of them here. There's a chair for one of them in there. It's like a pressback, oak chair. It just has a very particular design.

BODE: With the bevel?

HAYDEN: Yes, bevel. Essentially, the way they came about, up until the turn of the century, or the Industrial Revolution, the only people that had access to comfortable furniture were the wealthy. Something comfortable and ergonomic had to be hand-carved. When they developed this technique of steaming and bending wood to mold to the body and have a decorative design, they could sell it to the masses for a lot cheaper. So that chair was originally a democratic gesture that was similar to the Ford Mustang. Any person could afford it. So it remained popular through the '90s in America.

BODE: With no true designer or brand behind it?

HAYDEN: They were just generic. They are out of fashion now. You can find them at any second hand shop.

BODE: The skillets themselves, I know that you had told me that they were made using a historic technique.

HAYDEN: Yes. They're sand cast.

BODE: But they're not seasoned, right?

HAYDEN: The ones that are all black are seasoned, but I'm using linseed oil. I’m being gentle on them.

BODE: And that process helps to patina the metal?

HAYDEN: Yes. It’s so funny because I haven't been seasoning them well, so I’m not as up on it. But  all of the recent ones I've made have been copper plated iron or enamel so basically the iron isn’t visible.

BODE: And the designs. Where do those motifs come from? Are they antique masks you've collected?

HAYDEN: Yes, they're mostly West African masks and that has different foundations, for one, the majority of Black people who come to the United States came from West Africa. It's because it’s closer. One is the proximity. Also, that's where most of the trees were growing.

BODE: So it wasn't specifically your family origins, it was more of a commentary on Black history in America.

HAYDEN: More like the diaspora. It was one of my responses to this idea that I’m obviously of African descent but I might not know from where or how much, and blah, blah, blah, but it’s undeniable. I’m partially Africa. With these I decided I'm just going to claim that wholesale even if I’m just an abstraction of an African. The process of making these skillets was about making a rudimentary copy. In sand casting, it's not like a lost wax cast where you retrieve exact detail. In sand casting, it's pixelating, it's distorting it. Parts of it might crumble. There's this intentional loss of information, which to me reflects this idea of not being an original.

BODE: Are you casting again, the second iteration? Or do you always start back from the very beginning?

HAYDEN: A mix of both, per se. All those ones hanging over there are the originals, but I'm adding to them. I haven't recasted any of the ones I casted, but each time I cast one I never remake the same one. I'm adding the details to it. I've added my mouth, nose, and ears. All of them have different finishes to them as well. They are losing information as they get recast. Some of them have degraded because they got stripped.

Beyond this notion of me being an abstraction of an African, I’m making these copies that are less detailed.I did get this African ancestry DNA test done which is funny because 23andme or, they give you this big thing where they say you're a percentage of this and this, but this one tells you the percentages of an African tribe you are from your mother and your father side. I am part Fang, who comes from Ghana, which is where the trees come from and also some of the masks that I like come from. So it kind of worked out.

BODE: But that was secondary to your process.

HAYDEN: Yes, I'm just aesthetically attracted to them and it turned out that I have some connection. Maybe it's my DNA

BODE: You hear about kids who have been adopted and who love a specific cuisine or curry. Then, they find out later that their grandparents were from this region of the world or something.

HAYDEN: It's believable. Even things I didn't like as a child but I've started to let in.

BODE: I feel most connected to you in looking at the private space and all these artifacts from the home. Things like the kitchen table that you grew up with. Also, your use of historical techniques. You actually care about the preservation of basket weaving. You're taking apart this chair to relearn how to do it. Your investment in materiality and its history

HAYDEN: Yes, the physical and cultural properties of the material. That's a big thing for me especially with some of the woods that I cut down on the U.S.-Mexico border. You wouldn't know they’re from the border looking at them or that they're persecuted, like one of the woods is  Mesquite which is native to the Southwest, all over Texas and Arizona, and California, and Nevada. A lot of people hate it because they consider it invasive because they do well in scenarios where other trees can't.

BODE: It doesn't need water.

HAYDEN: Or it will take the water that is there. Agricultural people, like ranchers or farmers, don't want it and so they kill it. They'll do all sorts of things to get rid of it, spray it, burn it. It was interesting that this wood has this unwanted and invasive connotation and how that can be synonymous with a group of people.

Although you don't look at this wood and you see that it's unwanted. Part of why it's available is because people don't want it. They want you to cut it down and get rid of it or it is really big in barbecue.

BODE: Then you have this whole other practice with another type of wood that's completely illegal.

HAYDEN: It's not illegal, it is endangered.

BODE: You love ebony, the only wood that sinks, right?

HAYDEN: It definitely sinks. There's a little bunch of things about it that make it special. But it's amazing what you can do with wood in general. It's just about understanding the properties.

For example, OSB is as notorious as the shittiest wood. It is a plywood that's made up of lots of pieces of different mulch. I thought of it as the wood that's the most reflective of us. It’s all these different trees mashed together to make this thing that's global. It's in everything. It's in cars. It’s in houses. It's in furniture. I like the idea of  sanding it until it looks like marble. You can take something that you think is the shittiest thing, use it correctly and with the right detail you make it something totally transformed. That’s probably the same at Bode.

BODE: Yes, so that's much of what we do too. We take things like tablecloths or things that otherwise discarded because of cigarette holes or staining, and make it into something that you'll cherish again—like your work.

Pubished: July 15, 2021

Huey” was on view at Lisson Gallery, 504 West 24th Street, through August 13, 2021.

Emily Bode is an award winning fashion designer and business owner living in New York City. Bode's flagship store is located at 58 Hester Street, New York.