Steve Hurd - Mona Lisa 2003 cover of Contemporary #58


Steve Hurd is a contrarian. Not necessarily in the economic sense of ‘an investor who makes decisions that contradict prevailing wisdom’, although you could make a pretty strong argument for that based on his contentious record with the artworld and his chosen medium.

As a painting major at the San Francisco Art Institute he made sculptures and burned them. This got him accepted as a graduate student in UCLA’s New Forms and Media department... where he made paintings.

When these paintings were first exhibited in Los Angeles almost exactly a decade ago, they stuck in the craw of an art community that was trying to define itself, on the one hand, as a nexus of complex cross-disciplinary work à la Mike Kelley and, on the other, as a happy place for compulsorily content-free painting. Hurd’s first show, which appropriated advertisements for kitschy collectables, magazine covers wondering ‘What Happened to the ’80s?’ and the logo for Snuggle brand fabric softener rendered monumental, was effectively a pre-emptive ‘fuck you’ to both camps.

What wasn’t recognised at the time was that Hurd was, in fact, one of the few emerging artists who, rather than latching onto a technological crutch to give old ideas a frisson of novelty or retreating into some post-ironic colour field of Cockaigne, was actually grappling with the legacy of formal and political deconstruction that defined twentieth- century art – and doing it in the language rendered most untenable by that process: paint.

Most of Hurd’s paintings have been large scale – occasionally enormous. Their imagery is generally derived from the mass media – American consumer housewife magazines like Woman’s Day and Family Circle, gardening catalogue illustrations of rose varietals, interior decorating DIY books, teen idol gossip rags and sleazy hardcore personal ads.

His palette oscillates between the lurid and the muted, and is applied, paradoxically, with a deliberately slapdash but photorealist hand, then glazed with an embarrassment of fetishised expressionist drips.

Every one of Hurd’s decisions addresses his enormous conflict with committing to even the humblest aesthetic preference, yet he continues painting.
Surprisingly, the resultant product is usually enormously engaging in formal terms, from the initial sensationalism built into copying a layout designed to appeal to our basest consumer lusts and shattered attention spans, to the much scarcer rewards of a prolonged art-savvy contemplation.

Even a brief pondering flips the script on the superficial conviviality of these paintings, and much of Hurd’s notoriety is rooted in the dismay of intransigent decorationists having their eye candy handed to them and almost immediately snatched away.

Which is, of course, the point. All of Hurd’s paintings can be seen as salvos against their presumed role in the art world – as artefacts for consumption, as cultural currency, as talismans of difference for the cognoscenti, as expressions of a personal vision, as dialectical propositions about painting, as critiques of consumer culture and the artworld and as objects of beauty.

Hurd stays one leap ahead of his detractors, turning an LA Times review describing his women’s magazine paintings as ‘manipulative, formulaic and empty as their throwaway sources’ into the throwaway source for a piece in his next show, a strategy that prompted a flurry of reprobation (mostly from other critics).

This social dialogue is essential to Hurd’s art, grounded as it is in the confrontational performative legacy of Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy, two of his professors at UCLA. One of Hurd’s last performance pieces was the establishment of Steve Hurd Fine Art at the height of LA’s early 1990s explosion of small independent and bedroom galleries.

Artworks were unceremoniously heaped in the ‘gallery’ – an industrial trash dumpster replete with signage and wine, cheese, and pricelist strapped to the side with cable.

Potential patrons had to rummage for their treasures, and still half the work sold. One recent painting, completed for a group show in an alternative gallery, reads ‘I really appreciate being part of this shitty show in this shitty space. I hope you think of me next time you organize another event’.

Another current series turns psychedelically intermingled flags of various antagonistic collectives (Taliban/USA; Israel/Palestine) into functioning ‘peace pipes’ with the addition of elaborately integrated drug paraphernalia.

The inclusion of marijuana plants and trompe l’oeil malt liquor bottles (Olde English 800 – a ghetto brand) in many of Hurd’s paintings – while rubbing artworld noses in another powerful taboo – also highlights the artist’s transcendentalist tendencies.

In spite of the association with conceptualism and a strong commitment to dialogue, Hurd’s practice embodies a powerful drive to outstrip the ego. It’s only fair that if one says ‘fuck you’ to every other attempt at rationalisation, one should say the same to one’s own.

The result of this even skepticism is an outpouring of unsupervised psychic material. Seething with rage and laughter, Hurd’s work seems to be speaking from the uncensored id of the Los Angeles (and international) art scene, uttering obscenities and naming desires to which critics, curators and collectors – isolated by the power-biased news they receive from grateful supplicants – are utterly oblivious.

For all its acrimony, scathing wit, and Thanatos, Hurd’s work is not negative. Instead it unleashes – and is given form by – an array of often contradictory desires. Desire to paint, desire to consume, desire for oblivion, desire for resolution, desire for things to add up, desire to wallow in sensuality, desire to hold liars accountable, desire for revenge.

Finally, the work that seems, at second glance, archly critical is in fact profoundly nonjudgmental. ‘Everybody plays the fool,’ it says ‘but if you try sometime you might find you get what you need’.