jeanette hayes's future is as bright as her aura

The New York artist and 'web goddess' gets a chakra reading, as she enters a major new phase of her career.

by Zach Sokol
15 May 2017, 3:30pm

photography katie mccurdy

Jeanette Hayes has a good aura. Great, even. I know this because moments before the 28-year-old artist had her vibes photographed, then analyzed, by an elderly lady at Magic Jewelry in Chinatown, we eavesdropped on the aura reading of a tourist… and woof. While the out-of-towner was advised to sit in a special remedy chair tucked in a corner of the shop and also buy a particular healing crystal after receiving her dire-looking (and entirely blood-red) polaroid, Hayes — whose aura snapshot featured swaths of bright yellow, vibrant orange, and a touch of pink — was lauded for five minutes straight.

The energy reader explained that Hayes is a "blue-type person," which suggests she's sensitive, spiritual, calming, and a thinker. "You have a lot of ideas and you're a very creative person," the lady told Hayes, who's never had her tarot or fortune read, let alone received a chakra evaluation with an audience. The reader also divined that the photo's ebullient hues indicate that Hayes will experience "power, fame, success, leadership, and achievement." Most importantly, she explained that Jeanette "is not a daydreamer" or someone who fetishizes the trappings of success without a willingness to get her hands dirty in order to attain it. "You're looking for a bright future, and you want to achieve your goals by working towards them." Gimmick or not, her aura breakdown felt on-point.

Hayes is a dyed-in-the-wool hustler, in the best sense of the term. Just as her aura indicates, she knows what she wants and makes it happen; tellingly, she has a tattoo on her ribs that says "MAFIA." Take the start of her career, for example. Before she even had a solo show, the artist was interviewed nearly a dozen times, and landed a feature in The New York Times at just 24 years old. Fresh out of Pratt, she was making oil paintings of digital iconography juxtaposed with tropes from the canon of classical art, particularly Renaissance masters like Titian and Botticelli. Press ESC to Escape, a meta trompe l'oeil from 2013, was a painting of an image another artist made on Photoshop. It featured a Pere Borrell del Caso-style boy escaping from a MacBook, a referential scene Hayes had explored in even earlier works made while she was in college.

But despite her art's technical chops and distinct sense of humor, a lot of the attention she received early on was at least partially due to her social life, her collaborations with high-profile brands like Proenza Schouler and Opening Ceremony, and the air of célébrité she incorporated into her blurred URL and IRL personas. "The fake it till you make it thing actually was real," she told me with a wink during one of our interviews. And although Hayes didn't have gallery representation when the hype was building, she thought of herself as a career artist and "was making everyone around me believe it, too. I played it up so much, even to myself, that by the time it actually was true it was like, What was I even saying before?"

For years Hayes was pretty much the Platonic ideal of an "influencer," someone arguably known as much for her downtown cred and flamboyant online presence as for the strapping oil paintings that have always comprised the meatiest part of her oeuvre. In the past, if you were to peruse any of her busy social media accounts for the first time, you might notice her moseying around at exclusive-looking events with Snoop Dogg, A$AP Rocky, Young Thug, and Cardi B, or hanging with equally blonde and equally buzzy "it kid" types, before realizing she's a committed artist. After all, she can play the part when she wants, and used to actively compare herself to Ivanka Trump and Heidi Montag — both figures known for, well, being known. Hayes told me she was aware that some people perceived her as a flash in the pan — someone "known but no one knows why" — but that was what she wanted to put out there. "I love popular culture. I love celebrities and why they are celebrities. I love dogs that are famous; I love dogs that are not famous, but trying."

"I must say it's been all on purpose," she said of her public image during the earlier days of her career. "Like, before, I was posting more pictures of Paris Hilton. This is what I liked, this is what came naturally, so that was my life — take it how you will. And a lot of people didn't know anything else [about me]."

This led to some misperceptions, but nothing that's held her down. She's a Sagittarius, but most people assume she's a Scorpio. She's from a middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, but strangers on the internet used to regularly accuse her of being just another trustafarian with a vanity art practice. More than one article mistakenly referred to Hayes as a "net artist" just because her work frequently nods at web culture. Things have turned out for the best, though. Now — almost a decade into her career in New York, to the month — Jeanette Hayes has accomplished something harder than it sounds: she's redirected attention away from her status as a "web goddess" to her inimitable talent as an artist, without cutting out any of the fun stuff.

"I have always been a serious artist, but now that is what I want you to see about me. That's what I want to be sharing with everyone," she said, referencing how today she posts way more images from all stages of her practice to her widely followed social media accounts than in the past. "My career is actually doing its thing right now, so I don't need to play any games. It was just funny [before]."

Bill Powers, the legendary art impresario behind Half Gallery, was the first to exhibit Hayes's art, and she credits him for "putting me on." Over the phone, Powers told me that he's always appreciated her cult of personality and thinks it adds value to her practice. "I believe the continued blurring between an artist's paintings and public persona could make room for new hybrids of an interesting feather. If JPEGgy Guggenheim was a real art patron then Jeanette Hayes would be her favorite painter."

Friends who've known Hayes since before she moved to New York describe her as someone who's always kept it 100. Jack Donoghue, the self-possessed and provocative member of SALEM, also grew up in Chicago, and the two have been close since their teenage years. When asked if he could speak to Jeanette's general street smarts, he sent me an anecdote too perfect to make up:

Jeanette grew up on the west side of Chicago, driving around in an '89 Caprice. One night when we were younger in New York, a random artist, jealous of the hustle, tried to confront Jeanette and was yelling like, "She is just some rich heiress parading around the city. F*ck that bitch!" Jeanette filmed her for a second laughing then we walked away. After, she turned to me, huge smile on face, and said, "She thought I was rich!!!"

After being subject to that maybe-premature flurry of media coverage, Hayes did then have a solo show. In late 2013, she exhibited "Webcam Girls" at Motelsalieri Gallery in Rome, which featured a number of photorealistic paintings of iPhone screens with Venetian characters "locked" in the background, as well as some drawings, embroideries, and a video piece. (Since her college thesis, she's featured these four mediums in all of her solo shows.) Within the next few years, she signed with New York's Castor Gallery, participated in a myriad of art fairs, group shows, and, in 2015, created the annual artist book for Purple Magazine, an honor previously bestowed on artists including Richard Prince, Juergen Teller, Ryan McGinley, and Harmony Korine. She stepped up her painting game, too.

"Every body of work is kind of drastically different from what I've done before," Hayes explained. "All of the things I make are a hodge-podge of all these different things I want to see, I want to work with," but the subject matter and style have evolved with each new exhibition. In 2015, she started making "DeMooning" paintings, amalgamations of Sailor Moon characters and Ab-Ex forms that mimicked Willem de Kooning's "Woman"series. The idea "came to me organically because I'd be looking at so much de Kooning and it was just like, Oh my god, these look so much like these girls," she told me of the paintings. "Then I started reading more about de Kooning, and I realized he was in Japan when he was making a lot of his work. It's a correlation that no one puts together."

On top of being exemplary from a technical perspective, the series shines because it's more than a one-note punchline. Every time I look at one of the big-ass 60" x 50" canvases, I feel inspired, even encouraged, to make smarter connections in how I digest and interpret disparate aspects of pop culture. They make me want to find my own "DeMooning," to create something original and even precious from borrowed ideas in a way that gives other people a crystal-clear window into my brain and isn't postmodernism for the sake of it. "They have an academic standing, they look cool, they're fun to make, they're fun to look at," Hayes says of the series. Later, she added about her practice as a whole: "I like connecting wavelengths of thoughts and visions. When you are using familiar imagery, for a viewer it starts a reaction to the work in a place very different from seeing something completely foreign. I like creating things from imagination, I like remaking things I like, I like making it all meet. What I love most is abundance. I like all of these things in one [artwork]."

Her Pokémon paintings followed. They were similar in concept to the "DeMoonings," though fusions of Sargent-ish portraiture with a Kabutops or a Mewtwo. "Those were always just studies. Then I accidentally made 100," she said, laughing. Lately, however, her work has felt different — less abutment and more bricolage, though still greater than the sum of its parts. Before we had photos of our auras taken, Hayes brought me to Castor Gallery and The Hole, where she's exhibiting new work in two group shows. At Castor, her three paintings on view were chaotic, flatter in form, and the reference points were harder to identify immediately. Hayes said they were her "trying something completely left-field" and "along the lines of not wanting to be political but getting it in there. They're about the end of the world, but it being OK and kind of fun — we brought our toys, we brought our flowers."

They reminded me a little of the politically charged but ambiguous paintings in Jim Shaw's recent retrospective, "The End Is Here," especially when I noticed one of them was titled Apocalyptic Dreamers and that she tagged #maralago in an Instagram photo detailing it. I asked if our current political climate had been informing her practice."For artists, everything you think about is a part of your work somehow. It's not a job you leave and [can] turn your mind off from, even if you tried. And with the current state of world affairs, it's hard to not feel some type of way. More than any emotion right now, politics leads me to confusion, more than anger or fear. So I don't know what I'm saying in regards to my practice and politics specifically yet because I don't know how I feel about the world right now. Just confused. But optimistic." She plans to explore these ideas more through a number of drawings that will go on view in June, at a solo exhibition organized by her friend and fellow-artist Aurel Schmidt's Lower East Side gallery, Romeo.

All this echoed what the aura reader told Hayes at the end of her consultation: "You're an optimistic person, a very sunny person… You're still thinking about what you need to do to achieve your goals," but, "whatever you want, you will fulfill [that] and get things done."

In other words, a bright future is Jeanette's for the taking, and she knows there's plenty of time, regardless of an impending rapture. "I think right now my career is baby. I'm still in the first ten years of figuring out what I like, what I want to happen, what I want the work to live on and be like." Later, over email, she made it clear that while the specifics are still to be determined, she has goals for the long haul: "I'm not impressed with many young painters. I'm impressed by the old dogs. I want to be impressive when I'm an old dog."


Text Zach Sokol
Photography Katie McCurdy

Jeanette Hayes