The first thing you notice upon entering Ben Haggard's Second Street studio is a desk that's seen better days, lined in freezer paper and covered with globs of colorful acrylic paint.
"I call it my disposable palette," Haggard says.
The second is a portrait-in-progress of an angular-faced young man.
Focused, he grabs a brush and starts attacking the canvas in swift, rapid-fire movements that bring to mind a high-speed camera shutter, every seemingly fortuitous stroke adding another layer of depth to the already striking image.
"It's a sort of trance state," Haggard says of his "action painting" style, a "post-impressionistic meets expressionistic" technique he picked up during his training in southern France in the late 1970s. "It's very much in the lineage of Oskar Kokoschka," he notes, later pointing out that they shared the same teacher.
"One of the things that I'm always trying to do is work the tension between getting an image to emerge and always have that image on the edge of falling apart," he says of his signature approach.
The subject? He’s the nameless protagonist of a recent webcam cybersex session, the unifying theme of Haggard’s latest exhibit, Webcam, opening this Friday at Rouge Cat.
"There's a whole visual language that's getting expressed on webcams," he says, adding that nonpersonal communication is a sign of the times.
"It's obviously erotic, but it's also a kind of way of living in the 21st century," he says.
Taking a break from the against-the-clock task of finishing 10 pieces in two weeks, Haggard explains that his intent with this series is not to be overtly sexual, but rather capture moments that reflect this new body language.
"What's being expressed [is the] nature of desire and arousal, so you're seeing people—especially men—in these different states of arousal, and that's fascinating because there's a kind of unguardedness that goes with that," he says. "And then there are all these peculiar color things that happen because of reflected light and pixelation."
And so, Haggard's process captures moments of sublte intimacy like bedroom eyes, freshly revealed bare torsos and that one moment when the anonymous subject grabs hold of the webcam with the intent of lowering to give a below-the-waist POV.
"I have just thought for a long time that it was a really fascinating visual medium," he says, adding that the conduits for his inspiration, webcams themselves, were also an inspiration.
"These little tiny cameras are picking up the rooms and environments people are in," he muses, "seeing into all these very intimate, private environments. There is voyeurism in it, obviously—it's built-in to the medium—but then these moments of haunting beauty come out of that."
Calling this show a “little break” from the larger-scale Faces Santa Fe project (in which he aims to document and paint the faces of hundreds of Santa Feans), he discloses that though he’s dabbled in cyber fun before, this time around it was all in the name of research.
"I'm certainly aware [of webcam sites] and have visited them, but…I spent a lot more time on webcams working for this project than I ever had before," he says with a laugh.
"I was scanning for a certain quality of images," he says of his would-be subjects, insisting that explicit sexuality was never the goal.
“I hope it’s fun. I’m really aiming for it to be a fun show. I don’t think the images are all that provocative. They are, though, appropriate for the venue.”