Surrounded by Wealth, an Artist’s Comment on Education Loses Its Edge

One of my companions burst into tears when looking at Brier Patch, Hugh Hayden’s new installation in Madison Square Park. This wasn’t because of the artwork itself, which she proclaimed “cool and ugly at the same time.” It was because answering my question about what she thought of the work caused her to loosen her grasp on the balloon she was bringing home from a kindergarten classmate’s birthday party. 

Hayden has fashioned a hundred school desks from cedar logs salvaged from the New Jersey Pine Barrens and installed them in four groups spread across the park’s lawns. Spiny branches emerge from their seats and desktops, splaying off in all directions. I wanted to ask my children what they thought about the work because Hayden has explained that Brier Patch comments on education. 

The title refers to folktales about a wily rabbit who begs the fox who has captured him not to throw him into a nearby patch of thorny brambles. (In America, the folktales were most famously reincarnated in the “Uncle Remus” stories about Br’er Rabbit.) The angry fox, wishing to torment his victim, hurls him into the thorns … only for the rabbit to escape, since he knows how to navigate the seemingly impenetrable pathways through the patch.

Installation view of Hugh Hayden’s Brier Patch in Madison Square Park, New York

As my daughter sobbed, my seven-year-old son delivered his opinion. He couldn’t tell whether the work was ugly or beautiful, happy or sad. He would only say that it made him feel confused. Frustrated, I gave up on our cultural outing and delivered on the milkshakes I had promised from the in-park Shake Shack. 

Back home, reading Hayden’s interview with the New York Times, I realized my son was not so obtuse after all. Hayden said that Brier Patch’s branches could symbolize the barriers to education often present in the United States. On the other hand, he claims that the work can also symbolize that same system’s benefits. No one could sit on these seats, but they might imagine themselves finding a creative perch on the branches, sheltering within the system. The work can be seen as a critique or a celebration — or both — depending on the visitor’s frame of reference.

Confusing, indeed. Or perhaps a better word might be evasive — Hayden escapes being pinned down by an interpretation just as surely as Br’er Rabbit escaped Br’er Fox.

The one thing Brier Patch is not is a brier patch. The work originated as an installation of six desks at White Columns in 2018. There, the desks were pushed close enough together that their branches intertwined, creating a thicket in the gallery. But the desks in the park sit in widely spaced aisles. The tips of their branches brush up against each other overhead, like enclosed bowers arching over walks in a genteel garden. Nothing would prevent you from moving easily between the desks.

Installation view of Hugh Hayden’s Brier Patch in Madison Square Park, New York

One of the four groups of desks is branch-free. In the middle of the dense text on the park’s signage about the piece, a sentence notes that Hayden “offers” these desks to “individuals and groups to interact with the piece for contemplation or convening.” I haven’t yet seen anyone take up this offer, perhaps because these desks are surrounded by a fence — a low one, to be sure, but still a barrier. The soft, bright cedar desktops, ripe for doodling or carving, or even staining with Shake Shack ketchup, remain unscathed, more than a month into the installation’s January to May run.

The Madison Square Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the park through a public-private partnership, takes similar care of the space’s other features. Its Shake Shack, the chain’s founding location and a crucial partner in the park’s finances, bustles tidily. Parents, whether of dogs or children, have nothing to complain about in the park’s runs and playground. Even pollinators are provided for, with five bee homes scattered amid the greenery. Meanwhile, unhoused people, at-risk youth, protestors, and hustlers have somehow been encouraged to stay six blocks south, in Union Square Park.

The Madison Square Park Conservancy has been commissioning temporary art installations for the park since 2004. The signs for Brier Patch describe “the diverse range” of the program’s artists, while informing us that the work draws from Hayden’s “experience as an American and African American.” Within the well-patrolled boundaries of the park, where you are never far from a delicately worded fundraising appeal, it’s hard not to see Brier Patch as just another amenity, offering a pleasant opportunity for virtue signaling. 

Installation view of Hugh Hayden’s Brier Patch in Madison Square Park, New York

Many of Hayden’s other works, which also make surreal modifications to everyday objects, have much more bite. His American Hero series, which began in 2010 with a taxidermized buffalo mount given cornrows, points out the concealment of Black contributions to foundational American history. A sculpture of a police car draped in a white sheet, 2021’s “Boogey Man,” denounces the white supremacist ideals that underlie police brutality. And Hayden has taken meaningful steps to help others enter the brier patch of the art world, for example by donating works to raise funds for tuition for Black MFA and art history students and persuading the Public Art Fund to expand what had been a solo commission into a group show for other young artists of color.

But in the wealthy bubble of Madison Square Park, Brier Patch allows viewers to pat themselves on the back for their mere awareness of inequalities in our educational systems. The parents walking past who send their children to private schools are not made to question their decisions. The nannies whose own children are in sub-par public schools are not encouraged to protest that inequality. Everyone just gets to take nice Instagram photos, since the work does indeed, as my daughter said, look cool. 

Brier Patch is a temporary outdoor installation, not a public monument, and so I won’t judge it as one. But, as we debate what kinds of new monuments should be built to symbolize our changing understanding of our country, it can serve as a reminder to ask about who is paying. If a monument is seen as an amenity, it is likely to turn into something pleasing to the most influential and deep-pocketed members of a community, regardless of an artist’s intent. 

Hugh Hayden: Brier Patch continues at Madison Square Park (Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue between 23rd Street and 26th Street, Flatiron and NoMad, Manhattan) through May 1. The project was organized by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Martin Friedman Chief Curator; Tom Reidy, Deputy Director, Finance and Special Projects; and Truth Murray Cole, Curatorial Manager.

Anita Shire

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