I’ve been slowly working on a series focusing on folks reaching enlightenment in Walmart… The subjects are like the Buddhist image of the lotus which rises from muddy dirty waters without a speck of dust adhering to it as it proceeds to bloom pristine.

Michael Haight

The following interview forms part of a series where I invite contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.

This week I talk to Michael Haight, an artist based in Los Angeles whose works are “balanced with abstraction and figuration… with elements inspired by the artist’s Buddhist practice.”

Ten Directions Number 1 (2019)

Tell me about your piece, ‘Ten Directions Number 1’.

This piece is from a series called “The Ten Directions”. Works from this series look at the plethora of narratives happening all around us simultaneously in any given direction. Each scene is captured at the point where who is the giver and who is the taker is up to the viewer. This piece specifically focuses on Teaching and Learning, with the viewer deciding who is teaching and who is learning, and what is the lesson learned. Each scene has a sun at some point along the horizon as a way to ground the scene and to give it a point of reference.

Paintings like these, with their layout similar to the Toile;/56 that originated in mid-18th century Ireland and the later Toile de Jouy from Paris, are investigations into narratives with figures and subjects less conspicuous than the typical Toile de Jouy scene. I’m interested in how the viewer reads the milieu for themself because each is created via pareidolia—I build the figures from randomized and expressive turns of the brush that become finer with each session until the black lines define figures, body language and objects—and not predetermined before I make the composition. I sometimes refer to them as Rorschachs with figure painting. Each figure is genderless so that a wider audience finds a wider reading of each scene. 

From the series ‘Paper Thin Friends’

So far in your creative process, what have been the most important discoveries or learning curves?

The biggest learning curve is figuring out which medium is best for what I do. I’ve spent lots of time and money over the years on materials that I thought would be of use in making art. Ive settled on non toxic paints like watercolor, gouache, tempera, and ink.

Another important learning curve is the development of a personal, or signature, style. This takes accepting the way the body moves the brush and accepting the way the mind chooses to speak about worldly observations and contemporary knowledge. I’ve come to discover that I don’t need substances to inspire or motivate me in my work.

From the series ‘Paper Thin Friends’

As an artist, which philosophical questions do you find most interesting or inspiring?

I’ve studied and practiced Buddhism since 2015. Since then, I’ve come to realize that the main tenet of my work is enlightenment, and more specifically, our failures at reaching for enlightenment and the paths we take to try and get “there.”

In grad school, I felt like I was spinning my wheels looking at things from the highly academicized and overly erudite western philosophical traditions. Now, I prefer to either simplify my ideas or to look at things from a Buddhist standpoint. Karma, Cause and Effect, and Impermanence are all ideas im interested in talking about because they are ideas that permeate my worldview.

In graduate school, I wondered, “How can I use art to describe the way I see the world in different spectra?” but that line of thought fell apart because it was too complicated. I found that I was interested in language, the relationship between image and text, but I wasn’t interested in pursuing linguistics or semiotics. Now, I’m more concerned with “How can I talk about certain subjects without being too on the nose, disingenuous or non-poetic?”

From the series ‘Paper Thin Friends’

How far do you feel you have come in being able to answer those questions for yourself?

I’m still walking along the path. I’ve come to see hands as a symbol for our actions, karma being created or returned. Teeth are symbolic of the words we use to create karma. Billowing brushstrokes of colors can be either waves of light or ideas surrounding a mind. Thoughts, words, and actions are the three things that create karma, they are the cause and karma is the effect.

And to talk about these subjects with painting, I’ve found I need to be a poet about it, not necessarily a fiction writer or a Journalist. I think with poetry you can do the work of a fiction writer or a Journalist all while you do the work of a poet. But as a painter doing the work of a poet, that means I’ve got to depict my subject matter in such a way that color, form, and composition blend together the figurative and the abstract in much the same way the world around us is a mishmosh of what we understand (the figurative) and what we do not (the abstract).

My Ex Reaching Enlightenment in Walmart

What is the most unsettling work of art you’ve come across?

There was this time i was inside of a walk-in installation piece of James Turrell’s at LACMA. you take off your shoes and walk into a room with 15 or so other people that is maybe 20 by 30 feet, but because of the lighting design and the curvature of the room it feels infinite. While you’re inside the light all around you shifts between tone and color. There was this point where the light shifted from a pale pastel tan to a light blue, and, as that shift took place, there were three other people and myself who all sighed simultaneously.

It was a satisfying sigh and it was involuntary, it came from nowhere and we were all surprised that we had the same unexpected visceral reaction to this immersive artwork. We kind of nervously laughed with astonishment. I still go back to that memory often because it was a moment when art awoke something within me. Turrell pulled that sigh out of us unintentionally with this strange way a combo of colors triggered a muscle memory in us of relaxation and above all content satisfaction.


If there were an artwork that depicted your current experience of the world, what might it look like?

I’ve been slowly working on a series focusing on folks reaching enlightenment in Walmart. Some of them paintings or portraits of people I’ve known. My experience of the world in Los Angeles reminds me often of how we shop and how we are primarily consumers in this society. The paintings speak to this monolith of consumption that was grown from the seed of the outdoor markets of ancient society.

The paintings are not explicit in what the subject is experiencing or what is causing their enlightenment, only that it is happening within Walmart. The subjects are like the Buddhist image of the lotus which rises from muddy dirty waters without a speck of dust adhering to it as it proceeds to bloom pristine.

See more of Michael Haight’s work and keep up to date with upcoming exhibitions: Instagram | Website

Posted by:repsychl

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