The material act of painting is, for me, a conversation with the past, that contends with the material present (it has to be made), and future — all the possibilities each painting opens up. I am critical of these simultaneous understandings, their complicated history, and the profound fragility in the question, how do you know what you know?

My need to make art starts with my need to confront social and cultural challenges. I find that making can be self-activation — a type of self-assertion with the potential to lift up voices and awaken individual and collective consciousness. For these reasons, I continue to find peace, productivity, and meaning in my studio as I process all that’s happened in the country and world during these past months. Since I typically paint late into the night when the world is quiet, social distancing and self-isolation have offered natural solitude. I’ve been able to spend upwards of 10-12 hours a day working in my own space(s). For me, there is no currency more valuable than uninterrupted time. COVID has slowed down many aspects of everyday life while creating more time for introspection. I find solidarity with other people in quarantine, knowing that much of the world is forced into a slow inward-looking mode, a prerequisite for the maintenance of moral and spiritual critical thinking and deep reflection.

Kyle Hackett working in the studio, Washington, DC, 2020.

My painting practice remains as it always has — a proving ground. I use it to self-center and contend with ongoing dialectics between race, class and social standing around the constructed image. As a biracial artist of color, exploring identity as an in-between space is the undercurrent of my desire to paint and communicate the nuances of my lived experiences.

I have spent about a decade studying W.E.B Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness: the sense of looking at one’s self through the lens of others. I relate this idea to image making within the art historical canon. Often inspired by nineteenth-and twentieth-century portraiture and their precarious modes of depiction, I deconstruct historical ideas of secure identity and fixed-painting techniques. At the same time, I wrestle with notions of “insider knowledge”, mastery, and privilege associated with academic 7-layer painting techniques, including glazing and a fixed formula for strategically building up the image. I’m intrigued, both technically and conceptually, by notions of “finish” and the grisaille (grey) stage, where color layers are isolated in order to realize form. How can slowing down consumable views of a portrait, while excavating its art-historical construction, challenge understood relationships between image, surface, and material? At the same time, how can this process reveal insights into the psychological state of the painter/painted?

Kyle Hackett, State of Deliberation, 2020. Oil, graphite, tape on panel, 20 x 16 inches, with Detail

In State of Deliberation, I consider how elements of identity are often nested inside each other. Meaning can be framed by the seen and unseen. The side borders are actual tape (temporary) and the top and bottom are painted (fixed). Most of my work, in some way, references contraptions or braces from early photography, that might objectify and hold a sitter in place. There is a dynamic perception of freedom in organizing how one presents oneself in an image, which becomes a living document of a particular moment, belief, or striving. While I’m not explicitly depicting narratives or social events in my painted subjects, I’m processing them as I work. I want my paintings to embody rather than describe. Embodying can allow for new states of becoming that are complicated and discursively potent. Freeing.

Revisionist image-making as self-critique is a liberating practice. In a related body of work, I began creating still life “vanitas paintings” from discarded reference photographs of self-portraits that had been crumpled and tossed aside. This work evolved into painting crumpled exhibition cards that featured reproductions of my self-portrait paintings. In Spirits Rejoice, a former reference photograph was quickly crumpled, twisted and hung with a zip tie in my studio to become the new subject. Then the slow process of painting it became an act of documentation and reflection: coming to terms with the initial need to discard or revise. Spirits Rejoice is my largest vanitas painting; figurative components are slightly larger than life scale. I became interested in how light and silhouette can authenticate presence while at the same time allowing a subject to transcend a physical space.

Kyle Hackett,  Spirits Rejoice, 2018. Oil on canvas, 58 x 38 inches
Kyle Hackett, After Builder Series #5, 2020. Oil on aluminum. 20 x 16 inches

In After Builder Series #5, another vanitas painting, my discarded reference photo was crumpled and hung with items on my refrigerator (magnet, newspaper, and postcard). I also included a historic photograph of my grandfather who I never had the chance to meet but saw for the first time in this image — this year. By including his youthful appearance in the painted image, I consider time, legacy, and in-between spaces. This process of image making has allowed me to process my family history and find new connections to my material present. Compressing, expanding, flipping, maintaining, negating, and building positions: the making of this painting and the finished painting are live conversations between the past, present and (hopefully) are opening up new possibilities beyond their own relationships. Freeing.


Kyle Hackett is an Artist and Assistant Professor in Painting and Drawing at James Madison University. Hackett’s work is represented by Goya Contemporary Gallery (Baltimore, MD).