With Gothic imagery of severed heads, bleeding torsos, mannequins and drug paraphernalia, John Hoyt’s art has been called “ugly.”
But whoever said art is supposed to be pretty, asks the Lacombe-based artist, whose provocative pieces — rife with allusions to the Bible, Greek mythology and Alice in Wonderland — have been displayed in Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto galleries.
Hoyt doesn’t actually mind the ugly label. “OK, cool, that’s part of what I am trying to do,” he said.
His major influences are the German Expressionists — who aren’t known for creating decorative pictures — as well as austere medieval works, such as the Isenheim Altarpiece, displayed in a church in France.
Created in 1512-16 by German Mathias Grunewald, the painted altarpiece shows Christ’s crucifixion, and other heavy scenes of grief and suffering.
“Is it pretty? Definitely not,”concludes Hoyt. But it’s powerful, evocative, and makes viewers stop and look at it.
Hoyt seeks to give viewers a similar visual jolt with his digital artworks that are loaded with incongruous images that take time to analyze and deconstruct.
In his rather harrowing St. Sebastian II, a rock-star-like saint is shown in his traditional martyr pose — tied to a post and pierced with arrows. His eyes are covered, and his mouth is agape in a silent scream. At Sebastian’s bound feet an animated playing card from Alice in Wonderland, the Ace of Hearts, is painting the saint’s ankles red, while a cat casts his laser-beam eyes at the dying Sebastian. The backdrop is like a Currier and Ives Christmas card.
In Alice and the Great Caterpillar (Persephone and Hades in the Underworld), a china doll-like Alice with rabbit ears is shown reading while smoking a hookah pipe. Beside her, a giant slug on a mushroom holds what looks like a hash pipe. The caterpillar’s head resembles a bearded Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.
As Hoyt has been teaching art at Burman University, a Seventh-Day Adventist post-secondary institution, since the early 1980s, a natural question is how does the institution respond to artworks that include a Christ-like head mounted on a caterpillar or, in another image on his website (www.johnhoyt.ca), lying severed in a tray?
Hoyt admitted there have been discussions about his art, which is also influenced by Gustav Klimt, 1960s counterculture, Jefferson Airplane music, among other things. He feels it carries no political theme or any message other than what viewers personally ascribe to it.
Although he believes the university’s administration is generally OK with his desire to create arresting imagery that raises questions, he doesn’t push the situation.
“I don’t show my art within a 100-km radius of campus … I’ve learned to go under the radar.”
His paintings —which have evolved over the past half-decade into digital works printed on canvas — have been shown across Canada, however. Most recently, they were included in a 20th anniversary retrospective exhibit at the Propeller Centre for Visual Arts in Toronto in April.
He was also part of the Alberta Society of Artists exhibits in Edmonton and Calgary earlier this year, and has exhibited in Ottawa and Chicago.
Hoyt, who believes it’s OK to question some religious aspects, grew up in the 1960s in a conservative Seventh Day Adventist community in California. Having always doodled as a kid, he decided to switch some of his university courses over to art, and eventually obtained a masters degree in studio art from the University of California in 1972.
(Hoyt also has a masters in public health from Loma Linda University, and a PhD in post-secondary education from the University of Alberta.)
During most of the 1970s, Hoyt, his wife and their two children, lived in Africa, where the couple taught at a Rwandan college. The family moved to Canada in 1980, after Hoyt and his spouse landed teaching jobs at the former Canadian Union College, now Burman University. His wife, Carolyn Snipes-Hoyt, teaches French and German there.
Hoyt said he enjoys being a Canadian citizen. He appreciates this country’s more liberal political and social climate, as well as Lacombe’s quiet, friendly atmosphere.
Although most of his creative process unfolds digitally, “I think of myself as a painter,” said Hoyt, who still puts paintbrush to canvas every day as a teacher.
Since ideas for his personal projects usually start on the computer, he said, it’s hard not to continue developing them there.
But Hoyt is troubled by the fact digital art falls into a kind of grey area with gallery owners and the public. Art buyers still prefer old-school paintings rendered in acrylic or oils, because they don’t understand the artistic skill needed within the computerization process.
Hoyt still “paints” much of what he comes up with from his imagination on his computer screen, and uses Photoshop to make it fit his vision. If photography is considered a fine art, he said, then why not digital art?
Another problem is the unlimited number of copies that can be made from a digital image.
Hoyt is critical of conventional artists who make thousands of prints from photographs of their works, sign them, and pass them off as fine art prints.
He believes digital artists should hold themselves to making limited editions.
The trouble is, digital images can live online forever and could be found and printed off by others in the future, devaluing the limited-edition copies made by the artist.
Realistically, Hoyt doesn’t believe this will ever become a problem with his art. With limited public demand for his “weird” dark-themed works, he noted, with a chuckle, he’s never been asked to print more than a single copy of any image.