In Conversation: Maya Hawk

Maya Hawk is a photographer whose artistic practice explores the function of digital photographic tools in relation to everyday objects and imagery. She has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, the Lionel Rombach Gallery, and at several other venues throughout Arizona. She has most recently been featured in BRETT and Aint-Bad Magazine. Her first solo exhibition, “Just Looking” at Everybody Gallery in Tucson, Arizona recently premiered earlier this year. I had the good fortune of chatting with Maya about her new work, commodity culture, and the indexical role of the photograph. Maya Hawk received her Bachelors of Fine Art in photography from the University of Arizona in 2016, and is currently an artist living and working in Chicago, Illinois.

Just Looking

Hoarding can happen freely and easily in a place like Tucson, Arizona. It’s a transient place where no one knows or cares what the regulations are; it’s always one big yard sale. Perspectives are constantly changing as you drive by cardboard boxes that signal a sale for today, or maybe two months prior…who really knows? The fluorescent signs can be seen from blocks away. Visibility is key—the brighter the better under the blinding Arizona sun. The neon yellow competes with the sun in the sky; the radiant pink clashes with the cacti; the vivid green encourages the cash to flow. Arrows pointing in every direction guide you in one way or another, maybe towards a sale but always towards something unknown and dusty. The signs are everywhere, screaming at you, but they often go unseen and left behind. They are constant and personal, fleeting and detached.

Audrey Molloy: What I really love about this new body of work is that you’ve flipped the role of the photograph as an indexical sign—something that signifies or points to a certain thing, object, person—and quite literally photographed signs, arrows, and other symbols which are pointing to something, although the thing itself is left to the imagination. Can you speak to your thinking behind that? Was that intentional?

Maya Hawk: I am interested in these yard sale signs because they are ambiguous and often point to something that we can’t see. We are surrounded by various signs all the time and constantly filter through them. These yard sale signs serve a specific purpose, and when I broke down their individual characteristics, patterns started forming. They are mostly made from either bright fluorescent paper or found materials, like wood scraps, and have similar vernacular and designs, like arrows. The signs are usually advertised on busy streets, while the actual yard sales are tucked away in neighborhoods that don’t get much traffic. Often times, following a maze of fluorescent signs is required to actually find the yard sale.

AM: Your work often engages in the obviousness or “magic” of digital-editing tools to suspend reality. Especially with this latest work, you are really pushing the physical integrity of the photograph. What is the significance of that process or aesthetic to you?

MH: I think it goes back to the idea of the photo as an index. The photographic collages in this body of work depict yard sale signs but are isolated against a white background. I manipulated and collaged them, so they lost some photographic qualities and gained some object-ness. I started photographing these signs because I noticed their similarities. I wanted to translate this same-ness by collaging and meshing them physically together. My goal was to have the magic be apparent, but still confusing.

AM: In our digital age, images are infinitely transferable, editable, and a part of their surroundings. In your statement about this work you write, “The signs are everywhere, screaming at you, but they often go unseen and left behind. They are constant and personal, fleeting and detached.” This seems to be as much about garage sale signs as it does our relationship with photographs and our personal landscapes. Would you agree with that?

MH: Photography, advertising, and signs are ingrained in our mediated landscape. Photography is a lot more accessible. Most people have decent cameras on their phones, so a lot of the magic that once was photography is lost. Most advertisements are manipulated in some way, either through photoshopping an image or using language that pulls the viewer in. Yard sale signs are more vernacular. I really wanted to capture these signs because they are ephemeral due to their temporary materiality—paper and found materials—but constant because yard sales have become a kind of tradition in America.

AM: Do you consider those works inherently photographic or as objects? (I am thinking of those dimensional wood photo-stands).

MH: I do consider them as photographic objects. The yard sale signs I photographed are real objects in the world. I was interested in how they occupied space on the side of the road; they stood out, got broken down by time and weather, and became temporarily a part of the landscape. When they were photographed, they were flattened into two-dimensional images. I gave them a little bit of their object-ness back by collaging and manipulating them. Then I pushed the signs back into a physical object by creating the wood signs. There’s an interesting back and forth when flattening an object into an image and then bringing it back to object form.

AM: Something about this work that I think is really successful is how deftly it points to the relationship between photography and commodity culture; without infinitely reproducible images of objects, capitalism would not be what it is. You’ve used photography to document and interpret the excess of things-for-sale. Is photography’s relationship to commerce something you think about in your work?

MH: I photographed yard sale signs that are a product of this commodity culture, but I think yard sales are an answer to this problem of abundance for a lot of people. It’s another way to recycle one’s junk while also earning a few dollars. Yard sales are an interesting response to the plethora of things for sale, they almost become another little economy themselves.

AM: Although stylistically contemporary, these works are really quite timeless in terms of content and the actual elusiveness of “For Sale” signs. Like you write, “boxes that signal a sale for today, or maybe two months prior…who really knows?” Is this what initially compelled you to start photographing these signs?

MH: There are yard sales all year round in Tucson, Arizona. I first noticed these signs while driving, like everyone does, and I would notice a shift between them throughout different parts of the city. There would be more in some lower income neighborhoods and less in higher income areas. The patterns I noticed with the materials, language, and placement is what really caught my attention.

AM: Is this work going to continue?

MH: I think this series might be done for now. This work is inextricably linked to Tucson, Arizona. It’s always sunny and hot which means year round yard sales. I just moved to Chicago, and I think this work was a way for me to say goodbye to Tucson.

To view more of Maya Hawk’s work please visit her website.