Work in Progress

First place: Matthew Scanlon

Hidden from public view for over a decade, this surrealistic figurative painting demands attention from the gallery wall. Its bold and lively first impression stands in complete juxtaposition to classical technique like thought that escapes the conscious control of reason. The geometric color blocks define the space and depth of vision, while twisted tangles of free-flowing lines seem to bend reality and proceed in their own way of their own impulses. Some lines flow with unintimidated energy, while others radiate aggressive and repetitive movement like dark impulses from the unconscious mind. This female silhouette sits uncomfortably exposed, grounded yet ready to spring into a pirouette on the tip of a ballerina’s slipper. As the eye navigates through a labyrinth of chaotic obscurity, what is most striking is not what is present in the painting, but what is omitted. At the heart of the image, the whiteness of untouched canvas leaves a peculiar blankness, a void without interpretation, a door into the emptiness of an ongoing and incomplete journey.

Everything has an echo. First exhibited in 1936 as part of the International Exhibition of Surrealism in London, this painting and other surrealistic works of art stood in collective defiance of European nationalism. It seems to me that its presence on the gallery wall today holds a deeper meaning, perhaps an ominous warning for a new generation. The message that the surrealist artists were trying to make in 1936 is still relevant today as we are experiencing a resurgence of nationalistic ideology in America and around the world. The destruction of international alliances, the withdrawing from treaties, travel bans, border walls, children in cages, systemic racism, xenophobia, divisiveness, and intolerance have dangerous implications. We are living in surreal times caught in the contradiction between what is real and abstract, what is truth and lie, what is right, and what is wrong. We are once again unleashing a nationalistic ideology that emboldens, excludes, and has the potential to destroy our democracy and change the course of history. The surrealistic movement stood as an example of how vision, insight, and creativity could be used to challenge the status quo and create political and social awareness. The void of blank white canvas at the core of this painting reminds me there is still important work to be done. Since reality and democracies are never perfect or complete, perhaps what Stanley William Hayter is pushing us to see is that our existence is and will always be—a work in progress.

From the author

“Thank you to the Yale Center for British Art for coming up with an interesting way to highlight the connection between the arts as well as the community.”

About the author

Matthew Scanlon is a sophomore majoring in computer science. After completing his associate's degree at Gateway Community College, he hopes to transfer and complete a bachelor's degree in computer science. He loves all things to do with computers and technology. Scanlon is also a musician who plays guitar, violin, and viola. Before COVID-19, he played viola with the Hamden Symphony Orchestra and looks forward to rehearsing and performing again. In his free time, he enjoy skateboarding, DJing, and sailing his boat in Long Island Sound.

Read the next essay

“Collections Overview.” Collections Overview: Britain in the World Series. Yale Center for British Art, Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.

Hayter, Stanley William. “Work in Progress.” 1936. Oil and casein on panel. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.
Top image
Stanley William Hayter, Work in Progress, 1936, oil and casein on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Friends of British Art Fund, © Estate of the Artist