Hugh Hayden skewers the American Dream

In monumental new work, the Texas-born artist presents critical responses to social and cultural issues


For “Boogey Men,” Dallas-born Hugh Hayden stages a suite of seven works from 2021 at the Blaffer Art Museum. Hayden, a student of gardens and architecture, presents three interconnected personal, private, and public environments that emphasize the tension between the exhibition’s fabled title and truths of the human experience.

Behind a Gabon ebony sculpture of a fence (titled “High Cotton”) is “Nude.” The massive skeleton, covered with long leafless branches, sits in repose on wall-to-wall white carpet. Walking around the tree, footsteps suddenly become muted and indistinct as if on a blanket of snow. With a heightened sense of the spiny branches, the figure’s relaxed posture, and soft carpet, there is an intimate atmosphere of solitude that’s difficult to navigate. Such is a recurring wonderland in Hayden’s interpretations of the American dream.

Hugh Hayden
Installation view of “Nude” (bald cypress, plywood, aluminum) in the exhibition “Hugh Hayden: Boogey Men.” Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Photo: Francisco Ramos

That carpet stretches into the second gallery where the environment shifts from the individual to the familial.

It’s tempting to talk about the three sculptures, “Tightrope,” “Pride,” and “Soul Food,” as home furnishings instead of as artworks. In this living space, a floating staircase (fitted with a boar hair carpet runner) hangs across from a family of chairs — a car seat, desk chair, and recliner — upholstered with zebra hides. And nearby, Hayden suspended “Soul Food” from the ceiling. It consists of 12 copper-plated cast-iron African masks and brass instruments fused with pots and pans. Together, the group conducts a silent ballad inspired by the African origins of the United States.

The impulse to write about the work in a domestic context is not entirely at odds with Hayden’s practice. Perhaps best known for creating deliberately dysfunctional furniture, Hayden continues to mine the suburban interior for the complex social, ethnic, and cultural fabric of the United States.

Hugh Hayden
In the foreground, “Soul Food.” At right “Pride,” 2021, (Zebra hides, La-Z-Boy recliner, child car seat, artist’s desk chair). In the rear is “Tightrope,” 2021, (Ebony, boar hair, plywood). Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Photo: Francisco Ramos
Hugh Hayden
Detail of Hugh Hayden’s “Soul Food,” 2021 (copper-plated cast iron, copper-plated found brass instruments). Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Photo: Francisco Ramos

There was a chilling effect walking off the carpet and onto the hard concrete in the third gallery. The bucolic trappings of the outdoors that dot the concrete floor evoke the ambiguity of the shared, occupied territory of public space. Positioned catty-corner to the Burberry scarecrow and inflamed Adirondack chair is “Boogey Man,” a metal sculpture with the distinct silhouette of a patrol car.

The artist modeled the sculpture on a Ford Crown Victoria draped in a sheet of white stainless steel. Across the dark windshield are two oval-shaped holes cut into the cover. In doing so, Hayden inverts the cover’s function to protect and turns the sheet into a ghostly hood.

In one sense, Hayden makes the historical intersections between the former slave patrol, the Ku Klux Klan, and modern-day policing explicit and leaves interpretation open-ended. With its cartoonish proportions and diminutive scale (about three-fourths the size of a Crown Vic) “Boogey Man” presents a childlike interpretation of law enforcement.

The issue of perspective that Hayden activates engages with several questions. How do we perceive ourselves and others? And what are the experiences that shape someone’s perspective?

Hugh Hayden
In the foreground is “America,” 2021, (black locust wood and milk paint). At righ, “Boogey Man” (Painted and hammered stainless steel). In the rear is “Scarecrow,” 2021 (Cherry bark on Burberry coat on Gabon ebony rack). Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Photo: Francisco Ramos

Take the Boogeyman. Does he perceive his violence as unjust? Could he see himself in the hooded patrol car? Hayden poses another question, “Who would call a police officer a Boogey Man? Who would be raised to think that this person is a monster?” Just as the perception of oneself as guest, resident, or trespasser may hinge on one’s relationship to a fence, for instance, so too is the criminal and the criminalized, or the terrorist and the terrorized a matter of one’s frame of reference.

Several sources cite the boogeyman as a monster parents invoke to threaten misbehaving children. Whereas the colloquial boogeyman lurks in the shadows of our fears, anxieties, and trauma. Instead of enforcing his fabled role, the modern boogeyman personifies haunting terror and punishment on a mythic scale. Hayden’s invocation of the bedroom daemon retains a subjective specificity and a wealth of associations that permeates the waking nightmare called “Boogey Men.”

“Hugh Hayden: Boogey Men” continues through Sept. 4 at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston. Admission is free.

Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley
Taylor Bradley is an art historian based in Houston. Bradley specializes in modern and contemporary art with a focus on the history of photography and conceptual art. She received her BA in Art History with distinction from Boston University (2008) and earned her MA (2012) and PhD (2019) from The University of Texas at Austin.

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