When we admire abstract art, what are we looking for? What feelings develop inside of us the longer we ponder, question, and stare at an abstract work of art? What is the artist trying to make us see or feel? Worcester-based artist John Hayes-Nikas challenges art fanatics to take a deep dive into his art and draw their own meanings and emotions from his work. He offers little explanation but a world of meaning in his two series, “The Return” and “Structure and Matrix” — the first one entirely focused on black and white shadows and shading, and the other on bold and colorful abstract designs.
During an interview last fall, Hayes-Nikas said he wants people to look at his art and draw meaning from his artwork not for just the colors he chooses but for all elements of the piece they are viewing. Hayes-Nikas creates art without a set plan or blueprint; instead, he creates with emotion and passion. He describes his art as something he’s holding inside of himself that he needs to let out into the world. Even though he doesn’t necessarily plan his designs beforehand, he knows what he needs to create.
Hayes-Nikas described his creative process as creating space, then slowly removing the space. He also leaves white spots on his canvas on purpose so that there is a larger focus on the art he’s trying to show us. When Hayes-Nikas’ art is lined up in his intended order, the viewer can observe how space moves around within each work. Space also gives art viewers time to think and interpret their thoughts. It can represent a moment in time where people are allowed to fully understand what they’re feeling and reflect on it.
To draw meaning from his art one has to dive deep into their own emotions and try to feel what’s happening in the art. For example, in Hayes-Nikas’ black and white series titled “The Return,” the works contain rectangular shapes that seem to represent windows. What could the windows in his art symbolize? Is Hayes-Nikas challenging us to look through his art into something deeper or is he inferring that someone is looking at us?
Hayes-Nikas uses charcoal, graphite, and even magic markers to create a soft yet stern black that is immediately eye-catching. The lines can express a struggle that can be bubbling within oneself. The strong lines and softer scribbles create a jarring effect. His art could be encouraging people to look into the window of their soul and gaze at their internal struggle and true feelings.
In Hayes-Nikas’ color-based series, “Structure and Matrix,” he employs the use of brightness and color, resulting in more vibrant pieces. These drawings, however, also contain harsh mark-making. Although he delivers bright pieces, the blunt lines could be indicative of another struggle between being bold and assertive and being peaceful and warm. Some of his pieces, specifically a piece that contains blue and yellow markings, can be seen as a landscape. He uses dry pastels and paper to create an image that makes one feel as if they were on a warm beach or shivering on a mountain, proving that a little color can go a long way.
How do the titles of his series create meaning? Titles provide a foreshadowing of what is about to be shown, providing the viewer with an initial perspective before the search for their own deeper meaning. What does the title “The Return” mean? Maybe the return represents coming back to reality after taking a long look at one’s emotions. What does the title Structure and Matrix mean? It could represent a reminder to return to the basics, a starting point from which to create space, a foundation that will eventually truly emphasize the simplicity behind art. Additionally, it could also represent how color is the backbone or structure of a particular meaning a piece of art is trying to convey.
In one of our follow-up email correspondences, Hayes-Nikas told me that one of his friends described his art as “getting a lot of mileage out of a little vocabulary.” This infers that Hayes-Nikas’ work requires a second and third look in order to create meaning and fully understand the message he’s trying to convey. Hayes-Nikas delivers his message through little imagery, but the borders and the spaces within create an expansive depth, and, through it, an emotional experience individual for each viewer.
“Art History 201: Art, the Public, and Worcester’s Cultural Institutions,” at Clark University gives students the opportunity to work closely with regional contemporary artists. With individual artists from ArtsWorcester’s gallery programs, the students hone their visual and critical skills by producing short essays positioning the artists’ work within contemporary art history. This year, the students also curated small selections of their artist’s work for these online spotlights. This collaboration was funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.