If you’ve gone to art openings at any of the downtown Detroit galleries, you may have seen him kind of ambling through. In the old Michigan Gallery, you may have seen him headed toward the bar, not engaging in much of the perfunctory art small talk, and if so not making much eye contact. Yet, he’d be singularly intense and present in some way, somehow more present than anyone else. His paintings are often included in this or that group show, and his work even caught the eye of the venerable collector Jim Duffy; being included in the Duffy collection is really significant for a younger artist who wasn’t part of the original Cass Corridor scene in ’60s and ’70s.
When you look at the stunning complexity of the surface of a Robert Quentin Hyde painting, your first question will be: Who are all those women who occupy nearly every corner of the canvas? Virtually every painting is replete with scores, if not hundreds of women. If you ask people what Hyde’s paintings are like, they say, “You know the ones that are like abstractions, but when you look close are composed of the heads of thousands of women.” His best-known paintings are the works that have an all-over surface built up with layers of paint usually with no single part more pronounced than the rest.
There’s a process that he uses to achieve this baroque surface, and it’s intimately associated with Hyde’s total identity as an artist and with his engagement with the history of art. During a conversation the other day, Hyde explained, “The paintings start in different ways. Sometimes it begins with a series of drippings that are built up and create an underpainting that kind of gets me going.” It’s the “gets me going” part that’s important. The complex drippings might create a series of arabesque lines that intersect depicting a road-maplike surface. That’s where Hyde’s work begins.
Following a traditional surrealist strategy, Hyde “sees” or finds feminine figures in the intersections of dripped paint. “They sort of emerge out of the shapes of paint.” It’s almost as if he were in the street itself, involved in seeking the chance encounters or meetings with people that the surrealists believed could provide solutions or completions to your identity — provided you allowed yourself to be open to them. The female faces and bodies in Hyde’s paintings appear variously: sad and indifferent, cartoonesque and agonized, sexual and alluring, ideal like a bride or fashion model, often untouchable and fleeting and haunting. In some paintings the whole surface is teeming with female figures. Hyde spoke of the relationship between his painting and his dreams and his engagement with the surrealist artists who used the female at once as a figure of possible emancipation or of destructive attraction. He talked about the archsurrealist André Breton’s fascination with the mythological character Mélusine in his novel Arcane 17. Hyde said: “Mélusine was, you know, the shape shifter, the mermaid, the siren, the harpy, the lover who was all things to all men. She was the anima figure that energizes us.” All of these forms of the shape-shifting Mélusine seem to emerge in Hyde’s work.
His reading within that surrealist tradition is remarkable. He, in fact, has studied French extensively and has read much of the major surrealist literature in the original French as well as the significant French thinkers of the 20th century, including Derrida, Foucault and, most significantly, Freud’s heir Lacan. Moreover, he has read these authors as a thinker who is directly involved in the material and process of perception, personal discovery and art-making, not as an art historian. This kind of learning and research is not usually associated with “outsider” artists who are more often thought of as naive or primitive. In fact Hyde’s subtle understanding of contemporary literature in general was exciting. He described the nuanced psychological framing of such obscure but significant writers as Paul Auster and Patricia Highsmith with subtlety and wit.
So Hyde’s paintings are anything but primitive; in relation to his dream life and personal psychological research and balance, they become extraordinary visual diaries that put a unique spin on the role of painting. In some of the paintings there is a kind of psychological architecture where the modules created by the underpainting suggest moments of everyday life. It’s in these modules, in their seductive, jagged geometry, that Hyde evokes the surrealist novels in which the kaleidoscopic street scenes of, say, Paris, becomes the site of disturbing but emancipating self-discovery. The paintings also often have a subtle Eastern religious undercurrent of Hindu gods and goddesses, as if they are Hyde’s personal mandalas.
With the nonchalance of someone talking about a routine car repair, Hyde said, “Both Freud and Lacan believed that the access to the subconscious was through language, was linguistic, but the German psychologist Jung saw that the collective unconscious was accessible through and expressed itself in our dreams, and it seems that a visual discussion and representation of our inner world makes a lot of sense.” It was as if such profound issues were all in a day’s work, and Hyde sounded like he was interested in doing the job.
Aside from the discovery of the feminine figures within the maze of his own consciousness are the found objects that he subtly incorporates into the surface of the paintings. That’s not an uncommon practice in modern art, but in Hyde’s psychic landscape the supposedly benign, found object often takes on revelatory and talismanic properties. As in the objects in the famous boxes of Joseph Cornell, whom Hyde spoke of with reverence, these found objects become powerful images in the work. In one painting a simple painted cabinet door hinge is attached to a portion of a lifted triangle of painted surface, becoming a kind of “winged hinge” that has a transformational effect.
Overall, the more time spent with Robert Hyde’s work the more transformational it becomes. The intense journey of going from one passage (whether painted or collaged or scumbled or cut with a knife) of a painting to another is a spiritually and psychologically arresting experience. The beauty in his painting is not cosmetic but deep and serious, and is about the transformational power of the surrealist practice, about allowing ourselves the freedom to rethink and discover who we might be.
Hyde smiled humbly and spoke of his life. He was born and raised in Warren, as part of a large family. One brother is a successful sculptor in upstate New York. His father was a practicing architect for General Motors. He currently is an assistant librarian and has a studio in downtown Detroit. He talked about his personal journey from being institutionalized to the moment when his therapist told him that they didn’t have any more work to do since Hyde had effectively replaced their relationship with his art.
Robert Quentin Hyde is working hard on paintings for an exhibition of his paintings in Alumni & Faculty Hall at the College for Creative Studies from Sept. 13 through Oct. 12.This is the third installment of a four-part series on Detroit artists. To view other installments, see below:
In the first installment of a four-part Detroit artist series, painter Ronald Warunek reimagines the whole of creation.
Portraits of the world
Dropping in on painter Nancy Ulvang’s life in art.
Elizabeth Youngblood builds on her mother's lessons.
Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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