When you talk to William Hafer about his paintings, thank God he doesn't give you some lip about color theory. You won't have to endure a conversation about spectra or schemes, color wheels, chromophobia or chakra balancing. This is a good thing. Any conversation about aesthetics or "lite" energy healing, and he might have to physically defend his art from hostility. As it is, taking in a spacious studio full of his art is almost enough to make you vibrate right out of the place.
He's chosen a color palette that screams at you in rocket red, fire orange and key lime green, but the more glaring question is how this sweet, mild-mannered guy came to make such loud art. Hafer says he used to paint nudes in the straightforward style of realist portraiture but his models were always late to studio sessions. So he'd kill the wait by painting a corner of a room where the chair meets a wall. Then Hafer, who graduated from Wayne State University's MFA program two years ago, expanded his view of the world around him, painting abstract blocks of architecture as color fields. He'll talk about Mark Rothko's work for a while, but he shrugs when you ask for details about how his style evolved after that.
A better explanation is one he unintentionally slips into conversation, as he's putting on a record (early Bowie): "I think I started working with these colors when I joined Human Eye."
That'll explain the intensity. Hafer is well-known around town as a drummer for various Detroit rock bands. Through the years he's held down the stool with Bogue, the Paybacks, and, for a hot minute, the Sights; he's playing with Odu Afrobeat Orchestra now. But his work for the past few years as a primal pound-out-the-flesh stickman for Human Eye best reflects the profound panic in his art. Set against the walls of his home and studio, his striped canvases could be stretched from outer space, visually depicting the best of what's up there and the worst of what's down here, like the sound of Human Eye's "psychedelic alien punk."
"I want to overcome the viewer with feeling, to become really absorbed, full body and mind," the 29-year-old says about his paintings. "I want it to be all they see." He hasn't really given viewers a choice about that because, at about 8 feet tall, his art is human in scale, but just big enough to impose upon you. Each piece, which he creates in series, features about seven 4-inch-wide bars that either stretch down the entire length or stop short at graduated lengths. The stripes repeat in a rhythmic pattern that speed up and slow down as they break. It's almost like reading music as your eyes move from left to right and coast up and down; the hues push and pull against each other like tense musical notes that depend on their context for song. The slivers of white space in between each color act as pauses that allow your eyes to rest. Your perception of his work changes, it gets relaxing even his cat Alice Cooper seems to dig it.
Whether or not the music metaphor makes sense, Hafer says he doesn't want to tell people how to read his work. And he's right. Music isn't the only comparison that can be drawn. His unstretched canvases are reminiscent of African-American textiles that play with perspective, with flat abstract shapes reading like topographical maps. Similarly, staring straight on at Hafer's stripes is like staring straight down, at wood flooring or a piano keyboard.
Through modern art history, most painters who take the trouble to go long and lean like that a laborious process requiring them to climb up and down the ladder make damn sure to tape off the lines so they steer a straight path. It would certainly be easier for Hafer if he followed suit. He works a day gig at the Detroit Institute for Arts, and when he comes home, he updates his blog (art-musicforum.blogspot.com). His only time for painting is after band practice, some time between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m., when his hands are still shaky.
"I don't mind," Hafer says, about his accidental slow waves. "It's like a diary of marks." His art is evidence of an impromptu dialogue; each line is an answer to the question posed before it, an instant qualification of color. Seeing the imperfect process in the final piece, you can tell Hafer is loose and forgiving with himself. But he isn't lawless.
Hafer lays out pages from his sketchbook on a drafting table. He pauses to glance at each one, turning some of them right side up. That's the thing. With skilled artists, it may not always look or sound like it, but make no mistake, there is always a right side up.
Maria Castro and William Hafer Paintings opens 7 p.m., Saturday, May 6, and runs through June 1, at Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]