Exploring Male Beauty and Eroticism: Interview With Hayley Quentin

Hayley Quentin was born in Los Angeles and attended Otis College of Art and Design, receiving a B.F.A. cum laude in 2008. After graduation she spent 7 years living and working in the UK and France before returning to Los Angeles in 2016. Hayley's paintings challenge the conventional representation of male beauty and eroticism in art. Working primarily in oils, she repurposes traditional art making processes to create a lens through which the viewer sees the painted body. 

Hayley has exhibited both nationally and internationally including with CB1 Gallery, Soft Core LA, and at the Bergamot Station Arts Center in Los Angeles, Ro2 Art in Dallas, and Musee d’Art Contemporain de Lyon (in collaboration with Juliacks) in France. Her work has been featured in various art publications, including Create Magazine, Art Maze Magazine, and Full Blede. She is a featured artist with Artisster, an international art collective based in Hamburg, Germany. Hayley lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.

Hayley Quentin Studio 1.jpg

You are a female artist painting the male nude which is a bold, refreshing and inspiring take on the figure. When did you first start exploring this subject matter?

I first started working with this subject- male nudes- when I was studying at Otis College of Art and Design. Growing up I was always drawing and painting people, but never had the courage or freedom to really explore this subject until I started my degree. My work scared me and thrilled me at the same time and I knew that meant I was going in the right direction.

There aren’t many women who paint men and this seems so strange to me, now. I understand in some ways; I clearly didn’t have the courage to succumb to my true artistic interest until I was in an enriching enough environment. In a way I had to accept that this was my own poetic view of the world and I had to become comfortable with how much I took pleasure in painting this subject. Studying Fine Arts gave me a clearer vision of what I wanted my art practice to be like as well as the technical, painterly and even linguistic tools to accurately convey my ideas.

I have always loved the human body. There is nothing more beautiful and terrifying and dangerous and sublime than the figure. This is true both for my purely personal aesthetic reasons but also true throughout art history—so much work has been made on the subject of the body. It also seems so important to me to be able to represent male beauty, masculinity, and eroticism in art from a woman’s perspective.

The unquestionable dominance of the male gaze elicits the idea that there is no possibility for change, or that every alternative attempt will fall back into some form of cyclical reasoning, where nothing has changed. It seemed strange to me that there was such a void in not only contemporary art but also contemporary culture, for a woman’s perspective on the representation of men. Simply, I like to look at men, see their beauty, recreate the pleasure of looking with the pleasure of painting, perhaps conflate the two, and then multiply this yet again when the viewer takes pleasure in looking at the paintings. I want the viewer to feel compelled to look, to take a slow pleasure in really looking. Even with my work being quite passive it still challenges people a lot, simply for its subject. It makes people uncomfortable. Further, I still get questions of “Why don’t you paint women?” or “How does your husband feel about your paintings of men?” Questions that would never be asked to artists painting women. Yes, it’s frustrating, but also shows that it’s a type of work that needs to be made. Lucky for me it is my supreme interest.

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What do you hope the viewers take away from your paintings? What do you hope they learn?

All painting is an elaborate myth of depth, and I find it very appealing to have signifiers of this illusion: overly saturated colors, changes in the thickness of paint, changes in application of paint. Taken on their own, each element or representation could be believable, if only for a moment. I want to rest right on the edge between illusion, believability, and intentional disbelief. I want to hold the viewer’s hand and I want to take them somewhere where they wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to go, and that the whole time I want them to be in such visual ecstasy that they are okay to follow along. I don’t have the luxury of a wide, eager audience for viewing male nudes, so it’s my goal to take the viewer along and present them with something that’s so beautiful that they can’t look away. Hopefully this will lead the viewer to realize that all representation is an illusion, all our constructs of beauty and gender are illusory. When the viewer walks away, I want them to take with them a keen sense of awareness that a woman created these paintings – and that I created them from nothing.

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Talk a little bit about your use of color. Your work has a soft, sensual feel to it. What helps you make decisions about your palette?

I use a lot of unconventional color placement in my figures, although really they’re all colors that are found in skin or in bodies. For me it’s all about these incredibly dark reds and blush pinks and bruised fruit colors applied quite liberally across parts of the body that are unnatural and against nature. I use color to bring attention to, and sometimes sexualize, parts of the body. The way I use color is so intertwined with my subject matter, with choosing to paint men.

As I mentioned before, this choice limits who will be eager for my work. If my painting has a visible penis, I have to work even harder. Take, for example, Love is a Wild Computer #4, a painting of a torso, pelvis, and hand. Despite the obvious penis in this painting, the most visually catching part of the piece is the subject’s hand completely saturated with red paint. Next you notice the thigh, with its absence of color and its thick, staccato brush strokes. Only then do you notice the penis, almost as an afterthought. That’s due to my choices as an artist, my application of paint. The most supreme delight comes from viewing someone leaning in really close and looking at my paintings, and seeing them just joyfully lost in the paint. The fact that they’re closely inspecting a male nude almost comes second. That prospect to me would equate to an amazing amount of success- to showcase this subject without it being reduced down to a joke or something that is only for a niche audience. I use color very strategically, lushly, decadently, to entice my viewer, to have their eyes linger.

Interlace #2, 2017, 8x11in, oil on paper.jpg

What are your plans for your paintings and what is your biggest dream for your art career?

Right now I feel as though I am in a new, exciting transition in my work. In the last few months of 2017 I finished up several series that I’d been working on for a while (and thinking of for even longer). These paintings took lots of preparation and planning, and relied on my using many traditional art practices. I’m very proud of my accomplishments, but I was also left feeling a strong desire to work in a much freer, looser style after. While I haven’t shared much, I’m transitioning from mostly glazing and veiling to a lot of alla prima painting. It’s a very strange feeling, like falling in love for the first time- butterflies and nerves but also a feeling of radiating delight. I am currently in the process of working on this new series on canvas. I can’t create and critique at the same time, and I’m fully in the “create” mode at the moment, so I’m wary to say too much on what the final series will be. So much of the point of this new series is to step away from the intensely, overly planned way I was working previously and I’m so excited about these changes and what’s to come next.

As for my career on a whole, my dream is always to be making work that matters. I have definitely spent time thinking about my future career and what I’d want it to look like, but I’ve also learned many times over that whatever I specifically plan for the future is never quite what happens. Therefore I try to avoid having strict exemplifications of success. Also, what I want often changes and I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities simply because they weren’t “in my plan”. I’m definitely less specific about things I need to happen in my future, and instead work on achieving more intangible goals- for example trying to always go outside of my comfort zone in my work. Ultimately, my biggest goal is to have my work be a part of a movement that values alternative perspectives. It’s important to me to make work that challenges the status quo, toxic masculinity or any kind of oppressive ideology. Art is not a frivolous thing; it matters who has access to make and even view art. I guess my biggest, wildest, big-picture fantasy for my art career is that my work changes perspectives, challenges assumptions, and effects real, tangible change. I don’t know if it’s something I will able to achieve in my lifetime, but it’s a strong motivator.

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If you could create anything regardless of resources or logistics, what would be?

Such an intimidating thought! I have several concepts for new work at any given time, some totally realizable, others complete fantasy, and others I’ve entirely lost. It’s almost a dangerous thought to imagine no limit to resources, as it’s something that feels a very long way away, if it ever happens at all! That being said, I’d love to create a series of incredibly larger than life size paintings of the most lushly painted penises you’ve ever seen. It’s a very intimidating, daunting prospect, but I’d love to conquer this at some point in my career. I’d also love to be able to connect my current practice with this strange, idiosyncratic attraction to small lights, in some way that relates to the cosmos, perhaps in the vein of Andreas Cellarius. I have this vision of beautiful men of the constellations, like celestial bodies, if you’ll excuse the pun. In reality, I don’t know if I will ever have my own equivalent of “The Slav Epic” (which is this intense, decades-long series of paintings that was truly the life’s work of Alphonse Mucha that absolutely floored me when I first saw it’s incredible scale), but if I do, perhaps it will be something similar to these two ideas.

Buffer #4, 2017, 11x8in, oil on paper.jpg

Name a few of your influences.

Just to scratch the surface: Elizabeth Peyton, Luc Tuymans. Jenny Saville, Cecily Brown, Jan Mankes, Mark Tansey, Marlene Dumas, JMW Turner, Nicole Wittenberg, Daisy Patton, Rakeem Cunningham, Kris Knight, Barnaby Whitfield, Wolfgang Tillmans, Claire Tabouret, the early work of Georgia O’Keeffe, the watercolor male nudes by John Singer Sargent… I am particularly enthralled with other artists who also take on this same subject, especially if they are women. It seems a lot like the last frontier- the representation of men, for the pleasure of looking, by a woman.

Pink Noise #1 2016 16x12in oil on paper.jpg

Share a favorite quote or word of advice for our readers.

First, make work.

After I finished my BFA I moved to London. I struggled a lot with my practice and didn’t really make any work for several years. It was a difficult time. Eventually I moved to France, and there, in my little apartment, I had a renaissance, and began to paint again. However, by that point I felt totally out of touch, and behind all my peers. I felt overwhelmed and almost didn’t know how to begin again. I realized that more than anything, I needed to spend a significant amount of time doing nothing but painting- not comparing myself to others, not trying to put myself out there… at least not yet. First, I had to make work. There are many reasons to be distracted or enticed or intimidated away from the creative process. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to others, which can lead to feelings of being inadequate. Before trying to share your work, before trying to figure out your work, first you must make work. Take the time to only make work. Sometimes the best thing you can do is focus solely on producing for a period of time, maybe even a long period of time, and have no other goal in mind other than working. Whenever I get overwhelmed or frustrated or self-conscious or overly ambitious I always revert back to this advice- first, make work.