Hugh Hayden Should Cut the Crap

Note to artists: If you install your work inside restroom stalls, as Hugh Hayden has done at Lisson Gallery, don’t be surprised if people call your exhibition crappy.

A sensitive nose will instantly pick up the stench of gimmickry upon entering the Brooklyn-based artist’s exhibition at the blue-chip Chelsea gallery, self-importantly titled Hughmans.

In each conceptual public toilet stall hides an artwork by Hayden (all but one are from 2024), with which we’re invited to privately commune: a pistol sliced in half to reveal the inner workings of male sexual anatomy; another gun bursting out of a man’s groin in place of his penis; a pair of phallic statues in the form of New York’s Empire State Building, one erect and the other flaccid, both with pubic hair around the base. We also see wooden Pinocchio dolls with extended noses, a pair of skeletons performing Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic,” and some of the artist’s familiar tree-inspired sculptures.

As you can already tell, Hayden wishes to make a statement about the pitfalls of masculinity and America’s obsession with guns. The trouble with this phallocentric art is that it resounds with the same virulent masculinity it purports to critique.

Texas-born Hayden, who came to art after a decade of practicing architecture, has made some interesting work with trees and wood in the past, including woven basketball hoops and thorny furniture. Through those works, he has discovered inventive ways to approach subject matter such as Black American joy and pain, and the elusive American Dream.

So why flush it all down the drain with this installation? If this is a queer artist’s nod to public bathroom hookup culture, why is there no mention of this anywhere in the exhibition or press materials? (Lisson’s Los Angeles location, where the show was first installed last year, is housed in a former queer bathhouse, the artist says in an unofficial YouTube video.) And doesn’t this setting make light of such life-and-death subjects as racism, police brutality, and American empire?

Inside the gray stalls, I wondered: What am I supposed to do here, locked in with this art? Make out with it? Snort a few lines? Change a diaper?

With work so on the nose, I gained nothing from the intimacy the layout provides. And with no explicit purpose behind it, the public bathroom concept felt like a hollow stunt.

The artist and his gallery call the show an “exploration of the prosthetics of power.” I call it a claustrophobic encounter with a sophomoric prank, à la Maurizio Cattelan, Andres Serrano, and the like. As with any public restroom, the moment I walked in, I couldn’t wait to get out.

Hugh Hayden: Hughmans continues at Lisson Gallery (508 West 24th Street, Manhattan) through August 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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