XPRESS COVER STORY: The Beautiful Hayden Menzies

The Ottawa XPress, May 24, 2007

The unapologetic Mr. Menzies

Artist and former member of The Grey defends his decision to move

Hayden Menzies (photo: Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

They say all good things come to an end. But for some, the end is just the beginning. Multimedia artist and musician Hayden Menzies has got everything it takes to conquer the art world – killer talent, a relentless muse and rock star good looks. But why does he have to leave Ottawa to make it worth his while?

Hayden Menzies art

“The time to leave is when things are at their best,” says Menzies. “I don’t want to get too comfortable.”

In the last year, Menzies’ career as a visual artist has been nothing short of explosive. Straight out of Concordia’s fine arts program, he had his first solo show, Home and Heroes, at Shanghai Restaurant. That was followed by back-to-back shows at the Buzz, the Mercury Lounge, La Petite Mort, Black Tomato and in art galleries in Montreal and Toronto. The works from those shows were hungrily snatched up.

Before he takes flight to Toronto, Menzies will be at Artguise showing his newest works, a collection of evocative paintings that combine graphic sensibility with a harmony of colours. Brandon McVittie, the gallery’s co-owner, chose to showcase Menzies’ solo exhibition for obvious reasons: “His painting is at a sophisticated and professional level that fits in with what our clientele are looking for – something fresh and compelling.”

In the book Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today’s Cluttered Marketplace, authors Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman discovered that after interviewing more than 70 trendspotters and trendsetters, “cool” or becoming “the next big thing” had one simple ingredient – being true to your own vision.

One could argue that this freedom to just be and to express oneself beyond social norms and mainstream currency originates from the art world; it includes eclectic artist-types like Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat – not surprisingly, artists that inspire Menzies.

“They did stuff that looked like children’s scrawl on paper,” explains Menzies, “and people ate it up – and rightfully so, because their different point of view was unapologetic.”

Menzies’ mixed-media paintings borrow a lot from Basquiat’s aesthetic for all their semi-abstraction. Distorted figurative shapes, deliberately non-representational of human anatomy, are framed by earthy rich colours on canvas or board. But contrasted with Menzies’ self-assuredness is the glimpse of vulnerability that takes shape in his multilayered paintings titled Panic or Brotherhood. Themes of safety, security and belonging are reflected in signature-style images of houses, outstretched hands or animals; traces of the Alberto Giacometti and Egon Schiele sketch style pervade his works.

More than a modern painter, Menzies applies his art to silk-screening T-shirts, and in designs for show posters and album covers (Sleeping Pilot’s Panic Sex) that bear resemblance to Scott Sinclair’s artwork on A Flight and a Crash for Epitaph Records’ Hot Water Music. He also draws from Jordin Isip, as well as Jesse Reno’s popular art on skateboard, books and toys. Just as Basquiat didn’t discriminate in terms of the found objects he used to paint upon, and Isip and Reno liberate their art from fabric, so far Menzies confines his artwork to the traditional types of canvas or board.

It raises the question: Is there a risk that the interplay of graphic elements in the more traditional medium of painting distracts audiences from understanding his works?

“I’m not sure I care whether it adds or takes away what an audience wants to get out of my stuff,” he answers flatly.

The great consistency among Menzies’ works and a defined style that’s readable will ensure his lasting power. He’s not out to copy anyone. “My own personal aesthetic would overcome whatever I was trying to emulate,” he says, admitting that he hasn’t got his own niche completely figured out yet. “I’m still learning all the time,” he adds, “and I’m not afraid to show where my influences are.”

Fugazi for instance. Ottawa was once home base for his Fugazi-like post-punk band The Grey. (His new band, Metz, will take shape in Toronto.) His experience with that travelling band and his overall hangover from having lived in different countries with his family drive the point home that “there’s more stuff going on than in your own backyard.”

While Ottawa has been home to many musical talents, from hardcore gurus Buried Inside and Fuck The Facts to alt-country rockers Kathleen Edwards and Jim Bryson, the problem, according to Menzies, is that there are few extremes that might constitute “cutting edge” – that’s something he says he values as a creative person.

In part, that missing element has prompted his decision to move away. “I want to do more work,” he says, “and the reality is there are more opportunities in Toronto and they’re not going to come to me, I have to go to them.”

More opportunities might also mean not having to support your art by, for example, rolling bagels.

“The bagel shop insisted they couldn’t pay me until the bagels I had been rolling were up to snuff and sellable,” he explains about a job he once took to pay the rent. “After a couple of days, it looked like my bagels were as good as everyone’s, but they refused to pay me until my training period was done – a period that could last up to two weeks,” he says emphasizing the injustice. “So I quit.”

About his art, someone once said that “the measured and hazy nature of Menzies’ work points to a greater statement: that life is a progression of change and deterioration, vagaries and uncertainty.” If that is true, then Menzies’ kneecaps point to how he’ll navigate this ominous territory with a bit of humour: Under the right one is tattooed “free,” under the left, “bird.”

Like a walking canvas, his Lynyrd Skynyrd markings say it all. This baby was born to soar, and he’s not about to apologize for that.

New Works by Hayden Menzies at Artguise (590 Bank) begins on Friday, May 25, with a vernissage between 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., and runs until June 20. For more info on Menzies, visit www.haydenmenzies.com.