HB No, I went back to Pakistan for nearly two years after graduating from RISD in 1985. My father was ill and died the following year. When I came back to go to Columbia, I was making paintings, but instead of canvas I worked on found wood and metal, focusing on formal qualities-on shape, space and color. During my second year, I began working as an assistant to Meyer Vaisman, and I continued working for him after I graduated. In many ways that was a better education than being at Columbia had been-I got to see how a professional artist worked, and I began going to galleries more and meeting people in the art world.
After Columbia, I shared a studio downtown, near Canal Street. I was experimenting with plastics, foam rubber and spray paint, and with an assortment of objects that included feathers and panty hose. I never studied sculpture in school, so everything I made came out of trial and error. Gradually the pieces became larger and more organic-looking-like mutated creatures with enamel-painted, skinlike surfaces-and started moving onto the floor. By 1992, I knew I was making three-dimensional work. And the following year, when I showed several of these floor pieces in a two-person show with Jason at Kim Light in L.A., they looked like extraterrestrials that had just landed.
HQ, 2010, mixed mediums, 91 by 21 by 54 inches. Photos courtesy of Salon 94, New York.
SS I recall some masks from the mid-'90s that seemed informed by science fiction.
HB I'd always been interested in horror and science fiction movies. I remember watching Star Trek as a kid and later being influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then, as my work developed and I realized it had affinities with David Cronenberg's films or the "Alien" series, I began investigating science fiction more intensively. It became clear that the issues that genre deals with-the state of the world, the future and the fate of human beings-paralleled my own interests and sensibility.
Looking at science fiction movies and comic books, I realized that the artists making them were using African masks and the art of other times and cultures to develop their characters. So I began buying cheap plastic masks and using them as armatures for much more elaborate masklike sculptures that eventually incorporated papier-mâché, modeling paste and found objects.
These were followed, in the late '90s, by a series of more intimate sculptures, tabletop-scaled personal shrines, made out of found materials and objects that I painted over or altered. The shrines had a figurative, almost landscape quality that anticipated my more recent work-but it hadn't yet occurred to me that I could construct them in a more open, less finished way.
SS How were these works received?
HB Nobody seemed interested in the masks or the shrines-they were rarely exhibited and none sold. I'd take my slides around to galleries, and they'd be returned the next day. In a way, the lack of response at that time was liberating: I could do whatever I wanted.
SS Then, in 2000, you had a breakthrough.
HB I'd been looking at a lot of Rauschenberg's work when Centaur just sort of happened. There was a chair in my studio that I'd been considering for a sculpture, and there were a number of white Styrofoam mannequin heads lying around; so I stuck a head on the chair, thinking I'd construct something around it, and hung my jacket on the back to get an idea of what to do. It looked perfect just as it was.
Of course, I sat and thought about it for a long time and got other people's reactions. Centaur was very different from what I had been doing. But it felt strong, and it referenced other kinds of art that I liked; so I decided I would try to continue working in that way. My process had always had a beginning, middle and end. Now, I realized, I could just stop when I noticed something interesting. This discovery changed my work-by leaving things more open and raw, I was leaving more places for the viewer to enter.
SS When did you begin working with clay?
HB At the end of 2001 I went to guadalajara with Jason and Chris Hammerlein. Jason and Chris were working on sculpture projects and I was just tagging along. One day, while Chris was working with clay, I started playing around with it and made a sculpture of a foot.
When I got back to New York, I bought some clay for myself, and experimented. Eventually, I decided to make a reclining figure. I was working on a table, and began with the hands, keeping the rest of the clay covered-and moist-under a black plastic garbage bag, as I'd seen Chris do. I was trying to figure out the torso, when it suddenly dawned on me that the black garbage bag was itself a sculptural element. The war in Afghanistan had just begun, so the resemblance to a body bag-or to a Muslim praying-seemed undeniable.
SS It sounds like this piece came together in a moment, the way Centaur had.
HB Exactly. The table remained as an element and I gave the torso a tail, which in the first version was a wire with a small disco ball attached-but there was no need to layer any more onto it.
SS You've described this untitled sculpture [2002, 2005 and 2006]-which was first shown at Momenta Art, in Brooklyn-as something of a memorial to the victims of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
HB When I begin a piece, I'm working as a formalist-that is how I make decisions and establish relationships. I construct an armature, and work out issues of size, strength and complexity. Other references don't usually pop up until I start adding clay or paint, and then I have to decide whether to heighten or suppress them. As I work on the pieces, I'm aware of them in a very abstract way-I mean that literally and figuratively-and I go back and forth between things that I know I'm referencing and things I'd like to reference. Viewers won't necessarily make the same connections, but I want them to have the pleasure of looking at something that calls other things to mind.
SS In the last six years your sculptures have become more vertical. The figures, which you sometimes refer to as characters, have risen up and often stand, becoming at once animate and architectonic. How, for instance, did Sleeper  come about?
HB I made Sleeper when I was working toward my second show at ATM Gallery in New York. I wanted to make a kouros. The base for Sleeper is a found drywall box, with neither top nor bottom, probably a base for a sink, which I turned on its side. I built the figure up from the bottom, using scraps of wood as an armature, and adding Styrofoam and wire until it felt strong enough to begin adding clay. Sleeper was important because, as I was covering it with clay, I felt confident enough to leave the armature showing at the back. With its feet stuck in its base, the sculpture reminded me of how movie mobsters put their enemies in cement shoes and sent them to "sleep with the fishes."