31 July 2018

Summer awakens longings, expectations and memories. US-based artist Peter Halley recalls long roadtrips on the highway and lonely motels.

By Philipp Hindahl (text), Jan Buchczik (illustration)

The highway is broad and runs straight as an arrow towards the horizon, offering no reason to doubt that it goes on like this forever. To the left and right I picture either the desert or a forest. Driving, just driving, for hours, days, until at some point you reach the opposite coast. It’s hard to imagine today – days on the road, with cheap gas and amphetamines, the substances that made this American myth possible in the first place. “You can take a trip across the US, and it’ll take you three or five days,” says US-based painter Peter Halley. Most cars still need somebody to drive them, and people are not machines. “Motels are a necessity.”

© Jan Buchczik

The practical lodgings on American highways influenced the American art and architecture of the 20th century. Peter Halley has no obvious connection to motels, but for his early images he used Roll-a-Tex, a kind of paint roller that conjures up textures on surfaces. This technique was – and probably still is – used in American motels. Tasteful urbanites may turn up their noses at this cheap decoration, but for the young painter in the early 1980s it was an inspiration. Hence my question to him: Does he like motels? “Conceptually absolutely. If you drive around the US on a long trip, you end up staying at motels which are so lonely. Forlorn. It is an interesting feeling.” That sounds nice, I say. “It can seem scary. People are so isolated, provincial and strange. And threatening if you are different from them.”

Peter Halley tells me about his admiration for the architect Robert Venturi, who wrote a treatise on roadside buildings at the beginning of the 1970s. They don’t display any of the heroic modernist minimalism of that time, but rather, with their kitsch façades made of cheap plaster, their bright colors, their thrown-together architectural styles and their excessive classicism – after all they have to grab the attention of the motorists who speed past them – appear like the unexpected heralds of postmodernism. And in fact, just a short time later, architectural styles did begin to show similarities to them: a celebration of citation and irony.

If you drive around the US on a long trip, you end up staying at motels which are so lonely. Forlorn. It is an interesting feeling.

Peter Halley

I tell Peter Halley that I now follow him on Instagram. In his account he exclusively posts satellite images that he finds in Google Maps. I tell him that they remind me of his paintings, which are indeed maps and diagrams and thus a parody of the heroes of geometric abstraction. But actually, Halley says, his paintings are diagrams of panopticons, the Foucauldian machines of surveillance. As somebody who equally feels at ease and frightened in hotels, I ask him whether they, motels in particular, are not similar to these sorts of surveillance machines. He doesn’t think so. After all, you’re always exposed to the gaze of others and watching them the same time. Haven’t motels changed a bit in the last few years? “I think it’s probably better,” says Peter Halley. “Aha – are people more open?”

 “I wouldn’t say that. I would say that they’re less likely to be openly hostile towards people who are different from them. And you are much safer than forty years ago. Actually, they are much less weird than they used to be. Because of the corporate chains. They are more likely to be clean and…” Not creepy? “Ha ha, not creepy.”