Carly Haffner’s paintings are by no means realistic, nor do they exhibit perfect proportions and true-to-life depth of field, but a trained eye will quickly find sophistication, context and beauty in the childlike quality of her execution. This is all made very clear in the Springs native and Sag Harbor resident’s current exhibition, Carly Haffner: In the Woods, in Guild Hall’s Education Corridor. On view through February 23, the show comprises a carefully considered selection of her acrylic works on wood panel from 2015–2019, as curated by Guild Hall’s Casey Dalene, who uses the range of Haffner’s paintings to demonstrate the artist’s facility for color, composition and whimsical memoir.
In the Woods presents a different Hamptons than the region famous for mansions, beautiful beaches and celebrities. Instead, Haffner brings forth a truly local point of view—the South Fork of her youth—with junk-filled yards, living hand to mouth, and bare, grey trees against gunmetal skies. While some might imagine such a vision as dark or unpleasant, to Haffner it’s anything but. This is a Hamptons full of nostalgia, innocence and whimsy. She loves the area deeply, not for its luxury or burnished reputation, but for everything that’s real: an Airstream trailer and its smaller cousin, the “Love Bug,” a smiling snowman, local flora and fauna, and her childhood home, though it happens to be in flames.
“This is like a love story of my yard and I think the Love Bug becomes a character in the story. It’s like this classic, vintage thing that was originally an advertisement pulled behind a VW Bug…It’s kind of rotting in my yard,” Haffner says of the diminutive trailer depicted in three of the 14 paintings in the show. She doesn’t live in the trailer, but the significance of highlighting this small and meager transient “home” in the land of palatial, multimillion-dollar estates is not lost on her.
“My yard is sort of like the un-Hamptons because it’s not a McMansion. It looks different now because these junky yards are not lasting out here,” she adds, bringing to mind late Springs artist Rian White, who grabbed headlines during a fight to keep his cluttered yard, which was eventually cleared by the Town under duress in 2009. “I’m really turned on by those types of yards, and it’s nostalgic for our childhood because it’s a time that is no longer. When I grew up in Springs, a fisherman lived next to us, a Lester, and he used to fix his nets, and horseshoe crabs would crawl into our yard,” 41-year-old Haffner continues. “They all complain about the aesthetics of your yard, and these old families are selling out and leaving. I try to capture that a little bit—the Hamptons and East End that I’ve known and loved since I grew up here in 1983—because it’s changed a lot.”
Perhaps the most inflammatory image in Haffner’s show, “Burning Down the Childhood Home” from 2016, presents a middle-class, shingled house in winter—complete with garage and two floors of living space—in the midst of a devastating, metaphoric conflagration. The scene speaks directly to the near-extinction of the East End where she came of age, and how difficult it is to remain here in the face of continuously rising costs.
“This one gets a lot of play for the political message, because I’m from here and it’s kind of common to lose your digs in the Hamptons that you grew up in, the family home, and be forced out of the area,” Haffner explains, pointing out that even her twin brother and Bonac Tonic art collective cofounder, artist Grant Haffner, recently moved to Massachusetts, though she’s managed to stay. “Lots of my friends keep moving because they have to leave. You have to.”
Despite these themes, In the Woods also delves into more formal territory, offering a mix of de-saturated and colorful compositions of trees and shadows, sky and snow, and more—all inspired by memories and photographs. One of the strongest and newest paintings in the bunch, “Winter Moon Shadows” (2019), demonstrates perfectly why Haffner’s talent and eye are strong and getting better with each passing year. As the title describes, the piece illustrates lanky trees and their long shadows cast on snow by a bright, winter moon. The subtle balance of greys, blues, white and black shows both a mastery of color and thoughtful restraint, as well as Haffner’s ability to break her world down into its most important and effective elements.
“I wake up in the middle of the night—wintertime, midnight and snow, full moon—and see the most incredible shadows in my yard, and I take some photos for inspiration,” the artist says of how her painting took shape, adding, “I think it really captures a cold stillness.”
“Winter Moon Shadows” isn’t the only standout painting from 2019. “Clouds Over Corwith Avenue,” shows the view from Haffner’s day job at the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton. The more painterly “Psychedelic Forest,” features the aforementioned Airstream in the woods and shows the artist’s desire to experiment beyond her normally flat painting style. And “Kevin the Guinea Hen” is an ode to the last survivor after Haffner attempted to join the Guinea hen trend.
“I tried it out because everybody thinks they will eat the ticks in your yard, so I jumped on that craze,” she says. “I had a dozen guinea hens, but they’re really a pain because they’re loud and they poo all over your yard, and also they’re not necessarily going to stay where you want them to,” Haffner adds, explaining Kevin’s fate and exhibiting a penchant for telling quirky stories from her life. “They all got eaten by the woods, and now I have none.”
As part of Guild Hall’s Education Corridor, Haffner’s show comes with a programming segment, including an adult art workshop, Painting Trees with Carly Haffner, on February 20 from 6–9 p.m., and her collaboration with kids from the Guild Hall Teen Arts Council to build a cardboard stage set for the January 18–February 9 Student Art Festival. Learn more at guildhall.org.