The bright side of the canvas
Budding artist brings his spray-paint cans and rockin' themes to the Peninsula art scene
No watercolor landscapes for Jay Hill. This artist wields spray paint, utility knives and stencils to make rock-star faces and blasts of color. Sometimes his paintings have the restless look of old concert fliers.
The cutting and spraying and brushwork all go quickly. Hill likes to work in the moment.
He's just had his first featured exhibit, at Palo Alto's Gallery House, and that happened fast, too. He's been painting seriously for less than a year.
When Hill was younger, he tried to pursue art, sometimes oil painting, but that fell by the wayside. He worked in printing in the '80s and did some calligraphy, and those things kept his visual-arts sensibilities alive. Still, his career path didn't lead him back to his own painting for a long time.
"I went from truck driving to printing to desktop publishing to programming," Hill says, standing amid the canvases and slabs of wood and cans of acrylic paint in his Mountain View garage studio. A respirator face mask sits ready to protect him from the next spray, and bamboo shades and drapes of fabric are spattered with color from where Hill has spray-painted through them to create texture. Fortunately, his landlord is also an artist.
It was a film that finally drop-kicked Hill into making art a significant part of his life. He watched "Exit Through the Gift Shop," a 2010 documentary about the mysterious graffiti artist Banksy, and got hooked. Banksy, a British 30-something, keeps his identity hidden, spraying and stenciling his sociopolitical statements on buildings, bridges and walls.
"It just kind of sparked me," Hill says. "I just started painting on stuff in the house, pieces of wood. ... Oil painting takes so long to dry. This way felt so fast and loose."
The medium and the method inspired Hill, but not the message. Rather than painting about politics, he prefers to focus on faces: emotions and expressions, and the countenances of musicians and other creative types he admires.
In the hall of his home is a favorite painting: his bluesy, haunting image of the late Syd Barrett, the troubled Pink Floyd co-founder who left the band in 1968 and became a recluse.
Gazing at the darkened face and deep-set eyes, Hill quotes from his favorite Pink Floyd song, murmuring, "Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky." It comes from the tune "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which was a tribute to Barrett.
The painting, called "Black Holes in the Sky," contains the stylized letters that show up in many of Hill's paintings. Here, one of the words is an elaborate and almost unrecognizable version of "Barrett," repeated over and over.
Sometimes the words in Hill's work are clearly stenciled English; sometimes they're a mix of Spanish and German and a vivid iconography something resembling Japanese.
Hill tried to use real Japanese in the past, but he doesn't speak it. When he attempted "resolution," meaning "finality," he wound up with the kind of "resolution" more suitable for a jpeg. He decided, "Somebody's going to end up slugging me if I use the wrong thing," and went with his own fictional language.
In the Gallery House exhibition, which runs through April 28, Hill is showing "Black Holes in the Sky" with about 14 other paintings. He said he had liked the gallery and simply submitted his work. Now he's a member. Titled "Outbreak," the exhibit also features work by Pat Mayer. The Redwood City artist often incorporates found objects into her mixed-media pieces.
"I see beauty in a piece of rusted metal, a torn page from an old book, even a piece of discarded cardboard," Mayer wrote in an artist's statement. "Most often I have no preconceived idea of where these objects will take me as far as composition or subject matter goes. I like the viewer to discover what may or may not be familiar at first glance."
Both artists encourage viewers to look deeper at their work. They don't seem interested in creating images that are a snap to understand. Hill is even reluctant to make his titles specific. In what he calls his "baby face" series, for example, Hill purposely puts not-too-evocative titles on the paintings of young faces (which are often surrounded by mysterious words).
Looking at his painting of a baby wailing, he says that the wrong title could easily push viewers' interpretations in one direction: serious and political, or light and silly.
"It could be called 'Crying in Darfur' or "Get Me a Pepsi,'" he says. "It's all context."
When it comes to their materials, both Hill and Mayer tend to work with many strata. Mayer has her found objects, and Hill sometimes paints over and over on the same canvas or piece of wood. "I'll just do layer after layer," Hill says. "I'll put down stencils, layers, more stencils, colors." The result is deep and vivid.
In his garage studio, Hill displays pieces of a work in progress. He's started with a stock photo of a face, then blown it up large in his computer. Sometimes he turns the face into a woven pattern or stretches it in the photo program. Then he goes to Kinko's and prints it out big.
Back in the studio, Hill takes an X-Acto blade to the giant photo. He might cut it into strips, or cut out some of its features to make a stencil. Then he creates the painting, spraying and brushing. He originally worked on wood, but now that the size of his paintings has grown along with his confidence, canvas is proving less unwieldy.
One slab of wood became his desk. "On the bottom is a failed painting of David Gilmour," Hill confesses, flipping up the desk to show ghostly images of the Pink Floyd musician.
Other paintings that succeeded — and made it into Hill's first exhibition — include "Helios," a long rectangle of acrylic on wood depicting several faces, all of them looking up. Two women look expectant; one man is glum; one man seems a bit manic. What are they looking at? Who knows?
"Shoot Pool Fast Eddie" is a square of acrylic on linen, centered on the serious face of Jackie Gleason in the movie "The Hustler." Hill muses about the character in that movie, who was focused on playing pool when he was young, then left that world before returning years later.
"I tried to do art when I was younger," he says. "It's kind of my theme, too."
"Outbreak," an exhibition of art by Jay Hill and Pat Mayer, Gallery House, 320 S. California Ave., Palo Alto. Through April 28. The gallery is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. Go to galleryhouse2.com or call 650-326-1668. To see more of the artists' work, go to jayhillart.com or pdmayerart.com.