Clarity Haynes at the Aldrich

An explosion of bright pink hangs in the atrium of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. This bright light emanates from two hot pink paintings on shaped canvas, a heart and a triangle. Their surfaces are painted with trompe l’oeil objects and photographs, depicting highly personal narratives and deep dives into feminist art history. There is both earnest subtlety and revolution at play here. 

Clarity Haynes: Collective Transmission is a show of firsts. It is the first solo museum exhibition by the artist, and it introduces a new series by the Aldrich Museum called Aldrich Projects. This series is slated to be fast-paced and cutting edge. It will have a quick turnaround (by museum standards), with work switching every four months, and will highlight a compact body of work by a solo artist. 

“This is intended to be a nimble series of exhibitions, placed anywhere in the museum. Our goal is to support a new group of artists and be more flexible in our programming,” said Aldrich Senior Curator Amy Smith-Stewart.  

This particular exhibition is more than flexible, it’s radical. The show displays two of Haynes’ recent altar paintings which are transformed into their subjects. Haynes said that she wants her paintings to become “portable altars”, and in fact, she has succeeded in creating actual canvas shrines. 

On the surface, Haynes’ new paintings appear to be a departure from her previous work. For many years the artist has focused on painting portraits of female, trans, and nonbinary torsos, celebrating breasts and chests in all their forms. One of these paintings was a finalist in the 2016 National Portrait Gallery painting competition, hanging alongside work by a pre-celebrity Amy Sherald who won first place that year. 

Haynes’ “Breast Portrait Project” describes the joy of flesh, while acknowledging bodily trauma. The work describes the human body as a temple that should be celebrated, yet is susceptible to the effects of illness. 

The artist’s transition from exploring the body as a temple to painting altars is fascinating because both are explorations into extremely personal sacred spaces. “I first painted my own personal altar in 2000 and rediscovered it in a photo almost twenty years later, which is when I started making altar images again,” says Haynes. 

By creating a new perspective on something old, these bright pink altar paintings are not a departure but are a remembrance of what is most important to Haynes. 

While intimate, these paintings are also academic, rich with feminist art history. The heart-shaped canvas is a nod to Miriam Shapiro and within its borders are odes to Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois. The curator and artist spoke about this ‘referencing’ at length before installing the show. “It’s so important that artists make citations. We need to further elevate voices that aren’t included in the mainstream,” says Smith-Stewart. 

In this way, Haynes’ bright pink paintings pivot to weighty remembrance. These are ‘citations’ and academic notations, vastly different from the macho pop mash-up culture that has been so popular since Warhol. Haynes’ work reaches so much further than the appropriation art of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince, delving deep into feminist art history and idolizing her references in painted altars. 

Collective Transmission is both intimate and extroverted. Its extremely personal content can be jarring at first. As visitors enter they are greeted by a pink triangle ode to femme queer joy and a heart-shaped altar to childbirth with photorealist paintings of crowning vulvas. It’s interesting to note that the photos this painting references are from Haynes’ Instagram contacts. 

This is a personal citation and a nod to the artist’s battle with online censorship and rebellion against the status quo. Haynes is a key player in Instagram’s controversial ban against showing female nipples. She argues that Instagram is shaming women by allowing male nipples while banning female nipples. In addition Haynes’ work fits securely in the long tradition of painting nudes, yet to this day her paintings are attacked and marginalized on social media.

“Clarity’s work explores the power of love,” explains Smith-Stewart. “It’s an antidote to the pain and suffering we just went through.” Stewart is referring to both our new post-Trump political reality, toxic masculinity, and the trauma of COVID-19.

As cultural institutions begin to re-open, we hope their time shuttered during the pandemic was used to reflect upon the types of exhibitions they want to host and what messages they will champion. Collective Transmission offers an unabashed celebration of femme joy and the queer, procreative body. In our post-pandemic eagerness to reconnect, I applaud Aldrich for partnering with Clarity Haynes for this inaugural exhibition. 

The show continues at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, through September 6.