Spanish Whirlygig, 2006, Oil on canvas, 26" x 16"
Photo: Sean McGarrity, courtesy of Linda Durham Contemporary Art
James Havard has faced his own death. Not once, but at least three times. Now 72 and recovering from what was apparently a major stroke, he is nevertheless far from ready to “go gently.” Linda Durham Contemporary Art gallery in Santa Fe showed his latest paintings last winter, in what amounted to a coup d’art by a gang of ruffians. The exhibition featured a raucous, free-wheeling bunch of scrawled and slashed marks, textures and color—all forming a slew of characters who demanded to know, “What’re you lookin’ at?” This month, Durham plans a sort of “post-show” exhibition of more of Havard’s work in her downstairs salon.
One of the first Abstract Illusionist painters (a movement that came out of New York in the 1970s), Havard was known on the East Coast as “Gentleman Jim” due to his dapper dress and impeccable manners. “I like to dress; I take that from my grandfather. I was brought up lower-class, on a farm [in Texas], real strict.” The gentleman also has an eye for good lines in a building; Architectural Digest has featured both his New York loft (1986) and his Santa Fe home (1990). In short, here is an artist who has done very well in the career that his college advisor counseled against, suggesting agriculture as a safer bet. But Havard had drawn since he was a boy, “baseball players, farm stuff;” drawing remains the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems that allow him to paint freely and with gusto.
Havard moved to Santa Fe in 1989, a change that prompted experimentation in his art. Long a collector of prehistoric indigenous objects, he began to generate a more “primitive,” drawing-based style that introduced loose, Dubuffet-like figures and the use of encaustic and collage into his previously nonobjective paintings. In 2006, at the peak of his career, Havard suffered a life-threatening catastrophe, collapsing after his opening reception at Allan Stone Gallery. Since then, he has slowly recovered to the point that he can use his damaged right hand to create paintings that are “figurative... They’re just me. I’m trying to paint from that, my way of drawing, my way of painting.” His earlier, pre-stroke shapes had been called “paint people;” critic Tony Cavanaugh likened Havard’s work to that of Jean-Michel Basquiat. In his review of the Durham gallery show, Santa Fe arts writer Jon Carver put it like this: “They’re just both great painters; almost as good as children.” Havard himself admires the work of Antoni Tàpies, Cy Twombly, and Kurt Schwitters. He names Joseph Beuys as “one of my favorite artists of all time. I have all his books; I’ve been trying to buy some multiples of his. And there are a lot of good artists in LA—Ed Ruscha; Larry Bell’s a good friend of mine.”
Havard’s current work retains signature traces of that nameless something that is inherent to being human, something before—or underlying—language even, those “dark, humorous symbols” that filmmaker David Lynch (a fan of Havard’s work) describes. Since 2006, Havard has experienced a “hard recovery; I still can’t walk real well, have to use a walker. [I’ve] been working in a wheelchair out of my studio for a year or so. It’s kind of difficult to paint this way. I made a lot of small paintings [for his last exhibition]; I call them ‘lap paintings.’” The artist puts in a full nine-to-five day when he can work, though, and still makes knock-out art. “It all happens in the painting. It is figurative, [child-like], but there’s a finessing, nothing to do with looking good or being pretty, it’s just my work.”
“James Havard: Suddenly This Summer—paintings and new works on paper” can be seen from July 10 - August 16 at Linda Durham Contemporary Art, Santa Fe.