Poised at the circle’s edge: The photographs of Paul Hynes-Allen amidst his colleagues Owens, Arbus, Mapplethorpe et al.
by Oliver Mechcatie



The photograph is always a cheat in that the photographer has not earned the formal intensity he proscribes as an act of force in the photographic medium. To mention a few of those thriving within the space of a lost cause, blinking at both history and art history through, and despite, their photographic apparatuses:

On Bill Owens: 
I imagine Bill Owens as being too impatient to engage the process of painting. This process is of the trajectory of the modern painter in a medium which he can only degrade. Instead, Owens frames the contingency of life with the dizzy joy in not having to wipe the canvas down with turpentine and start over again a thousand times. Still, Owens’ empty focusing of suburbanites who, like the landscape termed ‘American’, have not earned their beauty, bespeaks a uniquely American lack of shame shame in the act of photographing. As such, Owens represents the taking a picture of the subjects caught up within the subdivision as the subversion of the gentry the painter Gainsborough portrays before their verdant stretches of land in paintings, in which the clouds negate their unadulterated material as white tufts. The writer Nabokov would have enjoyed the ‘all-American’ tableau as represented by Owens as a newly minted subdivision inevitably poised before its own decay: it is not the meticulous ranch house in the first moment of existence, but the viewer who is seeing through a lens tainted with the loss of innocence of the tabula rasa which one is always trying to get back to, which Owens focuses."

On Diane Arbus:

Diane Arbus’ desire to capture the thrill of transgression as the realized break with the bourgeoisie comes in her works through the conduit of looking at the world through heavy-lidded Art Deco eyes weary with the span of great art work seen during a European tour as a child. These eyes now look out into the actively disintegrating urbanterrain of the 1960s and the beginning of the 70s, in which everything appears as an anachronism (including the unphotographed presence of Arbus herself). These eyes are also gender-codified as the dominant ‘She’ of her generation. (This is unlike the eyes of Owens, who, like the eponymous rimmed eyes in Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes, shares the omniscient block identity of the white male with many others as that which is seen and not seen, namely as the self-understood.) 
To pull two photos from the oeuvre of Arbus: The vast Arizona landscape of Brenda Diana Duff Frazier’s visage exposed by the hot desert sun of a table lamp glowing over the cacti of innumerable pill bottles (1966); or the stigmatized figures of the institutionally imprisoned - pale and anachronistically dressed figures bending, twisting and standing on the barren horizon of a mechanized world which discretely sheds those who cannot work, culling out those who ironically enliven the yawning emptiness of the very landscape which has abandoned them (untitled series 1969-1971); both of these masterpieces are forced from the inevitably quotidian oeuvre. Stepping into the empty streets of the Lower West Side, Arbus takes the photo on this day and this one time only, and then takes another photo of the same moment on the next day, and the next, until the moment is captioned as a ‘series’. Both moment/series show up the painting genre as ‘retarded’ in its inability to reveal the social evidence of the beauty of human suffering as anything more than through the artistic abilities of the painter to transmit them as an expression of empathy in terms of space and color, line and form, wrestled from the banal iconography which haunts the centuries. In her photos, Arbus is laughing at this figure of the painter striving for the real with the darkness of Kafka’s humor at the end of the “A Hunger Artist”: the photographer Arbus gnaws on the painter painting the painting; the restless, hidden ’She’ has found the substance she can feast on.

On Hynes-Allen and Mapplethorpe:

Like Owens and Arbus, Paul Hynes-Allen is an inheritor of the history of art in painting. However, unlike Owens (as representative of the middle-class) or Arbus (as representative of the privileged class), the inheritance in the case of Hynes-Allen is one of working-class innocence in the reception of art as historical. The middle-class humanus attains art history through a comprehensive narrative and as such is compelled to judge traditional art models as being situated in a past which is forcibly removed from any present. These models only begin to be revived again by the upper- class, which has grown up with intimate masterpiece hanging in a period room, suspending the real with a fake time and place - and through this reintroducing an element of play in the face of the ruins of contemporary art (which has no narrative), namely in the face of the ruin which is the art history as the past. The working-class man, in regarding art as recreation (or that which is positioned outside of work), pulls these distanced concoctions into the immediacy of play without any of the respect accorded to antiquity. Paul Hynes-Allen shares Mapplethorpe’s (another working-class boy’s) ability to recapture the still life, namely as the fragile luridness of the flower which the culture has decided in all the random circularity of its logic is beautiful instead of repulsive. Like Mapplethorpe and his crass disregard for a social class structure, Hynes- Allen is at the same time ‘over’ these social-aesthetic models, without however being infected by middle-class boredom in the absence of their aura. Hynes-Allen instinctively searches to break through the faded sheen of inherited art models, both great (as in historical paintings) and small (as in genre paintings), even as they hang in faux gilded frames in the council housing flats he photographs (see photos from the ‘first series”). The usage and disuse of these models are realized by Hynes-Allen through the stigmatized figures of Western society. These figures are overwhelmingly male. In their worn sneakers and extra-large football Jerseys, their visages evoke a handsomeness which has been put out of focus through innumerable strikes to the face - both institutional and real. Indeed, the typical Hynes-Allen subject would have garnered an early place in Himmler’s concentration camps as ‘asocials’. These ‘asocials’ are the social expression of ambivalence, both of the photograph as reproductive model and of existence in Western society in general. However, instead of like Mapplelthorpe, who compulsively indulges in the Pompeian focus on slaves’ genitals, Hynes-Allen serves up the indecent focus on cast-outs of a repressed past as the rambunctious idiots in the court of social capitalism. These figures are not pornographic but protruding. These protrusions refer to the actual physical features of the faces, which have been robbed of the usual aura of distance the social person wears as civilization. The bulbous nose, thick lips and crinkly brow of the Hynes-Allen everyman trespass into the viewing planelike the ruddy features of a laughing portrait of a Dutch peasant by Frans Hals. These expressions of beauty stink of body odor, namely of a sweetness as the expression of that which has long gone bad. The concentrated essence of the aesthetic here is utterly human in that it is penetrating.
A failed meeting with Hynes-Allen brings insight into his oeuvre:
I make an appointment to meet with Hynes-Allen at the center of Alexanderplatz, at the concrete fountain with heavy metal butterfies which bring to mind the flowers Andy Warhol’s mother once wrought from tin cans to sell door to door. The lively human detritus of this Resterampe focuses around me as the instinctive pulses of collective human life. The physical movements of a woman playing with a ball attract a towering and emaciated man with long, greasy black hair. He prances into and colonizes the female juggler’s orbit. With his loopy movements bespeaking a lack of core long given up to the god Addiction, he appropriates her ball and throws it up in a pantomime of her cloying sense of innocent play. He is the subject as portrayed by August Sander which destroys the stereotype by completely fulfilling it, posing within a collapsed space between viewer and viewed. In both the Hynes-Allen and Sanders portrait, it is in this space as non-space where the subject cannot be destroyed by his image, where the stereotype is so cleanly rubbed blank by the evil of addiction (in Sander’s case to the cult of personage, in Hynes-Allen’s case to the identification with the institution which destroys), that this form of evil is negated as such. As such Sanders’ ‘Persecuted Jew’ and ‘Nazi’ are equivalent, just as Hynes-Allen’s massive figure of the ‘Grandmother posing before a staircase’ is equivalent to his picture of the toothless man twisting his face trying to handle the sociopathic lens of the camera which mirrors back as the distortion of the distortion. It is the viewer who pays for the moment of recognition forced from the inner chasms of prejudice and social class hatred as the dark truth of the enlightened self, namely as the experiencing of a regressive moment which is realized as that which finally cannot be transcended. 

But where is the photographer whose work is a tableau vivant literally closing in on me? As the minutes ascertain that Paul is gone without ever having been there, I depart. Later, Paul leaves a hurried message on the phone in which he describes trying to approach me, circling the fountain in his bike, without being able to reach me. I am left with a feeble analogy tossed from the flash of a figure circling hundreds in a crowd, of which I am one. In the Hynes-Allen photograph empathy between photographer and subject is held up as the sickness which preserves the artist/beggar as being interchangeable and quite separate from the rest of us. We as the viewers are not invited to the Gesindelball.


Pauli and the Venetians:

The circle is, according to Cannetti in Masse und Macht, the most purely homogenizing formal element, exerting an inexorable pull on the subject who must experience his individuality within the collective as negligible. The circle of the failed socialist fountain exerted a too absolute power of attraction for Hynes-Allen. He could only approach his subjects (including me, who he has at times regarded with suspicion as being ‘pikey’ for my tastes in Imbiss food and cloying Renoir reproductions, telling earmarks of the habitus) when they are momentarily caught on the very edge of empty, drawing spaces. Only children - up until recently completely absent in Hynes-Allen’s oeuvre - are drawn into the vast, ever-opening circle. Literally being pulled by towering adult figures, they are as such innocent of being poised before the camera. Exceptionally, in the pictures of them, the subject trumps the image."

In his giganticist postcards Canaletto heroically confronts the empty, drawing vacated space of San Marco square, seizing it as a shape and strewing the taunting space with the charming, indistinct figures of an impossibly distant and aristocratic world. Francesco Guardi manages the voiding power of the urban emptiness of the Piazza by diffusing its lines with filth and smog and having the feral dogs raise their hind legs as symbol of the artist’s mark on the outer world. Hynes-Allen shows his sacrificial victims poised on the rim of the crater of Alexanderplatz, while he turns sideways and clicks just before volcanic ash hits before the moment of blinding focus. His figures are end figures. As volcanic waste fills their lungs and renders them voiceless, they pose and are poised. 

Perhaps Hynes-Allen’s work up to this point may be most succinctly brought into comparison with the key detail of James Ensor’s grand masterpiece “The Entry of Christ in Brussels”. The suddenly erotic exposure of white-pink skin open to the cold Berlin air of a white-bearded man posed like Neptune before the gush of a watery color advertisement in a Hynes-Allen portrait brings to mind the slash of Christ’s face focused entering in the distant point just beyond the crowd in Ensor’s painting, which is almost eclipsed by the mass social protest threatened by the stone-heavy slogans flapping above them. The expression of loss as gain in both Ensor’s art work and Hynes-Allen’s oeuvre is one of hilarity, - namely the hilarity of a freedom from having to fulfill the paradigms of the past future in the face of the ruins of the present. This, even as the ghosts of the past hierarchy are being evoked as an endpoint, after which everything is freed - from being kitsch or not.


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