Artist Hugh Hayden.

Before viewing the exhibition “Hugh Hayden: Creation Myths,” at the Princeton University Art Museum’s Nassau Street outpost, Art@Bainbridge, through June 7, one should consider the history of the Colonial-era brick building. Now a contemporary art site, Bainbridge House previously served as home to the Historical Society of Princeton, and before that, of the Princeton Public Library. Predating those incarnations Bainbridge House had a darker history as the home of a slave-owning family.

As recounted in these pages last year, 158 Nassau was built in 1766 by Job Stockton, a wealthy tanner and cousin to Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton. It served as lodging for members of Congress in 1783, and the Stockton family leased the building as home and medical office to Dr. Absalom Bainbridge who enslaved a man named Prime.

The Princeton University Art Museum, which opened the renovated property in fall 2019, has set a first-year mission to pay homage to that history and play off the theme of shelter and the building itself, as well as broader themes at the forefront of our lives today, such as immigration and borders.

Enter New York-based artist Hugh Hayden, who in “Creation Myths” reimagines the domestic spaces of the building through finely executed surrealistic sculptures. So meticulous is his woodworking — at the very top of his website he notes that his “favorite sandpaper is 60 grit … sometimes 400 or 1000” — that one attendee at a recent Q&A asked the artist, “Is your work functional?” The work in question, “America,” made up of a warm wood dining table and chairs covered with large thorns is decidedly not functional — if anything, the thorns scare off function — and yet the carved detail of the sumptuous wood is indeed something one might lust after in functional furniture.

A dining table covered in thorns.

In fact the table is modeled on the very table Hayden’s family gathered around in his childhood home, and he is commenting on the chasm between mass production and artisanal craft. “For me the kitchen table functions as a symbol of the American Dream — the nuclear family sharing a meal together at a round table where everyone has equal access,” Hayden wrote in Bomb magazine. “Only with ‘America’ this dining set is uninhabitable. Off-limits. The dream is now unattainable for a multitude of social and economic reasons.”

He wanted to further investigate the idea of family in America; who is the dream open to? The table is “something you can look at but you can’t touch. It really is the American dream: the desire to participate in something unattainable.”

Hayden worked with local teams including ranchers, landscapers, loggers, and students, collecting wood as a product of land management.

Another work in the show, “Brier Patch,” is based on the tale of Brer Rabbit, a trickster who dares a fox to throw him in the briar patch. The fox does just that, but the rabbit was born in the patch and is adept at maneuvering in it, able to escape the fox. Hayden salvaged the wood from Christmas trees discarded on New York’s Park Avenue, imbued with the wealth that comes with that address. Even though this “classroom,” this place of learning, appears menacing with its aggressive branches, success in academia has been embedded into this segment of society.

The “kitchen” of the house is empty except for a black pot rack from which hang beautifully seasoned cast-iron skillets. Walk closer and you see these frying pans have been fused with casts of African masks. It belongs to a series Hayden had begun before this exhibition, titled “American Food,” having a dialogue with the enslaved cooks who helped create American cuisine. Southern food, with its African American origins, is “the only true American food,” says Hayden. The cast-iron skillets are an important tool in that culinary tradition.

Cast iron skillets fused with African masks.

He begins with new skillets, or with some that are more than 200 years old — possibly fabricated during Prime’s lifetime. “Many of the people who were cooking this food in the pre-Civil War years weren’t Southern whites but enslaved Africans and their descendants,” says Hayden. “This is thus a materialized remnant of the historical cooks who helped develop this cuisine. But this isn’t just African American culture, it’s American culture. They were creating something that has become seen as quintessentially American cuisine, so it’s not the story of just one group of people.”

For “Creation Myths” he worked with the PUAM’s collections to make a new selection of skillets, using both African art and also artists from other cultures, such as Gaugin and Modigliani — artwork that didn’t necessarily interact in history. He uses a 3-D scanning technology to replicate the surfaces of the museum objects, and then a 3-D sand printing technology to make the mold that is cast into the final object.

“Just as you use many ingredients in the kitchen to cook, as an artist I use disparate artifacts to create new meanings,” says Hayden.

His interest in food began while he was studying architecture at Cornell University, where he received his bachelor of architecture degree in 2007 and went on to design dining spaces for clients such as Starbucks. The architectural background is certainly evident in the engineering of his sculpture.

It was also during that time he began what he calls “invasive food events.” In one, 21 guests sucked pureed macaroni and cheese and banana splits through crude snorkel-like tubes held in place by rubber bands; their hands were tied to the backs of their chairs. In another event, he used a bow and arrow to shoot white balloons hanging from trees from which fell roasted quail, landing on a table covered with a white tablecloth. The idea was to get people to rethink birds and eating.

This is part of the larger theme of his work: He draws from every day domestic objects “transforming things we take for granted.”

As a viewer continues through the house into the “study,” a claw-machine arcade game can be played. It is filled with cotton bolls that reference slave labor, and the room itself suddenly reverberates with its dark history. The casing for the game is a Chippendale-style highboy made of mahogany, an endangered wood. Wealthy people could afford such cabinetry because of slave labor, he says.

Born in Dallas in 1983, Hayden — who during a recent visit wore a white baseball cap and wire-rimmed glasses that rest low on his nose — could easily pass for a graduate student. His camo jacket serves as a reminder that he is a hunter; he collects feathers for his artwork and eats the birds, but he also connects camouflage with the blending in of assimilation.

Since earning his MFA at Columbia (he continued to design stores for Starbucks while there), the soft-spoken Hayden has been in numerous exhibitions at the Whitney, MoMA’s P.S. 1, and the Shed, among others, and this is his third solo exhibition, the first in a museum.

Of his upbringing, Hayden says he grew up in a “fairly integrated social and academic setting that was pretty comfortable.” The family lived near a protected greenway and enjoyed spending time outdoors — Hayden learned gardening and developed a passion for plants as a high school student. He went to an all-boys Jesuit school. “I was still this black guy in a predominantly white educational setting, but I’ve been in that setting my whole life. It was always this balance of blending in and standing out. I think all artists’ work is autobiographical in that it reflects your own opinions and experience. I’ve just evolved, but I’m the same person I was growing up.”

Hayden channels his self-described OCD into meticulous craftsmanship. His love for plants has manifested into his working with wood and other natural materials, such as feathers and animal hair. Thorns appear on many of his works, such as a crib, a stroller, white ladders, helmets, and a map of the United States. He also seems to be telling us there’s something captivating about a thorn, to touch it and feel its prick.

Like camouflage, thorns are a means of protection from predators. “A vine is a plant … that’s competing for light and grows up on the support of other trees, but also, to protect itself, it has these thorns as this other sort of expression of resistance or defense,” Hayden says. “For me the thorns are just another expression of that difficulty to inhabit a space. Which I feel — today and always — is a manifestation of these barriers that we create.”

Hugh Hayden: Creation Myths, Art@Bainbridge, Princeton University Art Museum, 158 Nassau Street, Princeton. Through June 7. Sunday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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