Peter Halley has developed a distinctive aesthetic language that includes only three basic geometric forms. He refers to the forms as prisons, conduits, and cells. The prisons contain lines that are meant to indicate barred windows; the cells are monochromatic squares usually made of Roll-a-Tex (paint enhanced with a textured additive); and the conduits are the linear forms that connect the prisons and cells. We recently had the rare opportunity to interview Halley on the occasion of the debut of a new series of works at MARUANI MERCIER in Brussels. As expected, Halley generously gave honest answers while addressing issues such as abstraction, suburbia, masculinity, and the relevance of contemporary art to people who are disenfranchised. Some of the ideas Halley shared seem cynical to me, such as the notion that contemporary art does not relate to humans who are incarcerated. Others seem right on point, such as the observation that much of contemporary society is “imprisoned within a digital carceral.” Overall, we are just so grateful to Halley for his forthrightness and clarity. This kind of honesty is rare in the art field, and we are thrilled to share this conversation with you now.
Phillip Barcio for IdeelArt: You have said that prisons are your main subject, meaning that the geometric shapes in the work are diagrammatic images of confinement. Have you ever served time in prison yourself?
Peter Halley: Well, I did spend one night in jail in North Carolina for public drunkenness.
IA: Do you intend for viewers of your work to think about actual prison life? Or do you intend for this reference to be allegorical; like a philosophical exercise?
PH: Allegory is also a means of presenting realities. I’m thinking about places and situations that are decided for you — things you can’t escape. I believe that we are imprisoned within a digital carceral.
IA: You describe the lines connecting the prisons and cells in your paintings as “conduits,” like electric and internet service lines — which offer transcendent possibilities to the inhabitants of the prisons and cells. In the paintings in your recent show at MARUANI MERCIER in Brussels, each prison does not connect to every other prison. The connections are limited. What is your thinking behind this?
PH: The connections between the prisons and conduits don’t solely address technology. The prisons are also stand-ins for people. Sometimes there is connection, and sometimes there simply isn’t. Digital communication — despite all of the possibilities it presents — is not synonymous with meaningful contact.