As this past semester of graduate school ended, I was not sure if I would make the trip to New York or not. My anxiety was forestalling my plans as it often does, and I was tether balling the idea back and forth and around in my mind with heavy hands. Travel always makes me anxious. One night, after lots of merlots, I pulled the trigger on a two-week stay and began plotting my visual excursion with nervous fervor and list making. I began lining up studio visits and planning my rounds through Chelsea and the Lower East Side. I am always most excited to meet and see the work of artists whom I admire, dead or alive. No experience compares to seeing so much art in such little time. It is romantic, grounding, meditative, sensual, and makes me feel justified in my weird human bones. While I was in the city I experienced creative rejuvenation through the artists I was privileged to meet and speak with. The first studio I visited was that of Angela Heisch. Heisch is an abstract visual linguist working primarily in gouache and approaches abstraction keenly with an exacting tactile vision and fetish for flat surface that recalls the Chicago Imagists, mostly Christina Ramberg. Her meticulous vibrating substrates present a fresh personal dialectic that evades capturing gazes of formal taxonomies regarding visual devices of painting. Her imagery strikes me as smart and exceedingly topical in the present conversation of painting, especially as it pertains to the painting that is happening in the city right now. It should come as no surprise then that Heisch was recently curated by Holly Coulis into Try to Smoke It at Taymour Grahne Gallery, a truly incredible exhibition space, in Lower Manhattan. The exhibition is curated, as I mentioned, by Holly Coulis a formidable painter in her own right, and resonant curatorial voice in the programming at 106 Green
My first day in New York I stayed where I was at, somewhat overwhelmed having come from my quiet existence in Texas. I walked around Long Island City and visited PS1, mostly to ogle the Jordan Kasey paintings, and went to the Key Food for provisions. I was feeling a little meek about the MTA and was therefore glad PS1 was so close by. It was a good beginning.
I had agreed to visit Heisch’s studio the following afternoon right around 2pm. I took the train to Sunset Park and met Heisch out on the street. I had walked too far and saw her waving to me from an open door; the invisibility of artists’ studios is a funny thing. The secret ubiquity of the city’s creative breadth is one of my favorite things to feel.
I entered Heisch’s studio and was greeted by three large paintings clad in Heisch’s austere palette of deep army greens, dark desert browns, rusty umbrage, sterling white, engrossing black, and the constant cardinal red that punctuates Heisch’s architectural compositions like an insistent alarm always sounding with a welcomed jab for your eye holes. There were also several tiny studies, smaller than 10”, tacked to the wall whose intimacy and care delighted me.
Their invitation was beguiling as they spoke to Heisch’s onerous intention for the game. Further, there was a rack of paintings, mostly smaller panels, against the inside front wall. Nearby there was a mini fridge, and at the back of the rectangle were two chairs. We sat and talked. We talked a lot about graduate school and all its quirks, and about many other things as well. She told me about going to school in Albany, at SUNY, and how the city, nonsensically the capital, is cleaved in two by the intensely strange Empire State Plaza. Heisch’s graduate school work is the origin point of the work she is making now, firmly rooted in abstraction and tethered about a visual device that she refers to as the “lozenge,” of which there are generally at least two in any one of her paintings. During graduate school, she made monumental drawings on paper with charcoal.
Heisch’s abstraction is flavored with nightmarish uncertainty and a seismic convulsion of anxiety; conversely her paintings hold the bellowing operetta of mystery and all its romance with isometric tension and fuzzy gradients that relate the visual sensation of balmy breezes. They are very planned and poignant, electric pictures.
If Heisch’s paintings were a ballgame they would be one on one or two on two scrimmages of basketball. The exchange of play is varied. Sometimes there are as many as six different ‘lozenges’ which observe a personified range of postures in relation to one another. There are foreground lozenges and background lozenges. Sometimes there is a central lozenge that seems to assume the role of protagonist who is surrounded by other lozenges interacting from different vantages, playing the voyeur or the antagonist and invariably both, or the sympathetic friend or injured lover. The act of role-reading in Heisch’s paintings, and between lozenges, however, is curiosity for killing cats as I’ll explain.
As I mentioned before, this aesthetic actor began appearing in Heisch’s graduate work, becoming a hot point of negotiation during critiques. The lozenges were formally contentious, simultaneously seeming a void while enacting a character. They became an object of debate and inquiry.
Between graduate school and now, two years, Heisch made a bunch of work that according to her may have been necessary, but that she no longer loves. We discussed the dangers of being played by loose games of abstraction. If you’ll read Heisch’s interview in Maake Magazine, now more than a year old, this looseness is evident. Heisch discusses a process of “concealing and revealing,” that isn’t so beholden to forethought, but derived of drawing in paint and layering by mask.1 These intermediate works between the lozenge are exercises in formal divination. These paintings are of a color palette contrasting between Day-Glo and darkness, they seek the iconographic objectification of line, which is perhaps a sensational way to describe 1980s pop ephemera. What I gather is Heisch sees the older work as being empty of intention. In the interview Heisch mentions Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay Grids. The essay orients the grid within modernist painting. Some of what I glean from the essay was residually paralleled in both Heisch’s and my discussion as well as in the title of the exhibition at Taymour Grahne. Kraus writes:
Because of it bivalent structure (and history) the grid is fully even cheerfully, schizophrenic. I have witnessed and participated in arguments about whether the grid portends the centrifugal or centripetal existence of the work of art. Logically speaking the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity. Any boundaries imposed upon it by a given painting or sculpture can only be seen—according to this logic—as arbitrary.2
Basically, the grid in Krauss’s essay serves as super-relative monolith for painter personal abstract devices. Abstract devices extend like the grid into subjective understanding through personalities of their apophenia (the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data). I think that Heisch’s lozenges are important for us and to her because of their personification of the autotelic and, or apophenic. Heisch projects gesture into an archetypal device that readily identifies as void or simply shape, thus creating in an almost quiet way the apophenic fascinations of schizophrenia, a word that Krauss uses heavily. The experience of schizophrenia is immediate for Heisch whose brother lives with it. Manifesting while Heisch was in grad school, her work has been dealing with it ever since albeit not in a way that is literally evident. The lozenges defy Krauss’s distinctions of centripetal and centrifugal, neither void nor shape; for Heisch they are transcending rhetorical codes of abstraction. Their naming is specific to Heisch. Lozenge in her meaning is a singular colloquial. It is the absence of clichés in formal vocabulary. Its association is mentholated and perfunctory, an object on which you pause to suck so that you may breathe better. This quality, related through term, is both funny and true. When animated in Angela’s paintings the lozenge form becomes electric in some sense of defiant stupefaction; lozenge doesn’t make sense, but the lozenges are easily legible as confrontational figures in dialogue with each other or the viewer. They are a final maybe, and so evade or transcend our name-calling in critique or casual awareness.
Initially I was charmed by Heisch’s paintings because they acutely resonate the Chicago Imagists and The Hairy Who. In Heisch’s work I see Christina Ramberg, Roger Brown, Art Green, and Phillip Hanson. Mostly it’s Ramberg, who incidentally didn’t ever receive the same acclaim of Roger Brown, or Ray Yoshida during her lifetime, an unfortunate trend of our patriarchal art historiographical canon. I think that Heisch’s work is much more than a simple continuation of Imagist aesthetics though, and is happening in good company, such as that of Julie Curtiss, who is also making heavy homage to the Imagist aesthetic, although not without nuance.
I think Heisch’s work is in direct conversation with Roger Brown and Christina Ramberg, and yet she maintains freshness through autonomous perspective of available reference. The Imagist’s devoted following flows from their individual ability to devise visual nuance from homogenous cultural matter.3 The Imagists, Roger Brown made astute collisions of the American metanarrative obscured through the compulsory lens of the “folk artist” and then simultaneously derived of Saturday morning cartoons, popular news media, and other archetypes of Americana. In the introduction to Who Chicago?: An Exhibition of Contemporary Imagists, published in ’81, Victor Musgrave writes beautifully about the way Imagists were in their own time, effectually late greats. He describes their merit as being of the same disregard for cultural norms and fashion as that of the Outsider artists whom they championed, Joseph Yoakum and Martin Ramirez nuanced by their compulsive collecting habits and seamless pastiche. Musgrave describes the group as they were, independent codependents who practiced autonomously and exhibited collectively their origin stories inextricably linked by their interests and Chicago.4 Heisch’s work is palatable in much the same way as the work of The Hairy Who or The Monster Roster through transformative memory belonging to formative years, the primary concurrence of public and private meaning, and a general awareness of popular society and its actors of psychosomatic schism.5 Heisch maintains the veneer of fetish through her fastidious dedication to personal style. I think the buzz word here is idiosyncrasy. With idiosyncrasy Heisch merges craft and seals our eye. This technical facility is a mechanism of visual pleasure that was a mark of the Imagist too, made problematic by business it is a formal feat in which viewers delight.
In trying to relate Heisch to the Imagists, and pointedly Ramberg, I will let it rest with a quote from Dennis Adrian’s essay in Who Chicago?, he writes:
One relatively prominent concern of our artists is an interest in a high quotient of formal incident throughout the pictorial field: the works are very busy. Color is usually high and intense, even in works where the chroma consists largely of closely related hues. Christina Ramberg alone avoids high key colors, but the contrasts of value and of the hues she does employ are sufficiently strong to make a powerful, if deliberately limited, coloristic statement.6
What ties Heisch’s work to Ramberg’s is the steady rule of muted palette limited almost like chess pieces in their movability. Furthermore in this most recent work of lozenge envisioning, Heisch pays tribute to the fetishized surface. She opts for gouache as her sole medium. This choice is in part, I surmise, responsible for Heisch’s dedication to planning. Each painting begins at least with a pen and ink drawing finished to scale and often symmetrical. Sometimes a full color study is made before the final picture. The symmetry of the initial drawing is dissolved in the act of endeavoring the final work. In the process of making the big painting Heisch will introduce an isometric variable that gambles the structural viability of her moves. This deviation and “fuck you” to symmetry is further part and parcel to the schizophrenic comport of the lozenge which rebels against typical approaches to abstract stimuli. It is mutation and to me it feels very human. It is a place where I can read my own sentimentality into the work, and I think that is what I look for above all else in how I quantify art that stirs me. What links her work further to the Imagists is a preoccupation, intentional or otherwise, with structures pertaining to outsider gesture which are born in compulsive repetition and lyrical semblance resulting in a generalized physical mimesis. Heisch’s paintings invite viewers to a game of horoscopy that may match her intent at outset about as well as your astrological forecast in today’s paper. There’s a healthy amount of wiggle room.
In studying Heisch’s painting I think I realized a lot about the common thread in Coulis’ curating of Try To Smoke It, the titling of which is referent to the famous Magritte painting made in 1926, The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe; “This is not a pipe”. The title relates to the painting vis-à-vis a reference by Leo Steinberg in his 1972 essay about Jasper Johns. In the exhibition’s press release the excerpt is published and resonates crystal clear with Coulis’ curating.
[Jasper] Johns’s subjects are flat. Under an enormous literal representation of an unmistakable pipe Magritte wrote Ceci n’est pas une pipe. And to the puzzled spectator who mistakes the image for the reality, he would have said – Try to smoke it.”
The eight painters selected by Coulis for the exhibition are Hannah Rose Dumes, Angela Heisch, Kerry Law, Danielle Orchard, Alan Prazniak, Kanishka Raja, Lumin Wakoa, and Mitchell Wright. Each artist warrants engagement, and I couldn’t find any parcel of the presentation to be lacking. All of the work was good and it was well varied. In describing the exhibitions of the Hairy Who as they first came to Europe Victor Musgrave wrote:
The Inspirational exhibition, inspirational, that is, to artists as well as the ordinary public, is a rarity offering new ideas that can surprise and stimulate or old ones in a revelatory context. It deals with art as a living thing…
The work included in Try to Smoke It is permeated by a quality of forwardness that speaks volumes to both the layperson and the initiated art nerd. Try to Smoke It is the kind of exhibition I want to go to every month. I truly feel like I could write passionately about each artist in the exhibition and would encourage readers to investigate them all.
1 Emily Burns and Angela Heisch, “Q&A with Angela Heisch,” Maake Magazine, 2016, accessed June 7, 2017, http://www.maakemagazine.com/angela-heisch/.
2 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (1979): pg. #, accessed June 7, 2017, doi:10.2307/778321.
3 Art Green, Suellen Rocca, and John Corbett, Art Green & Suellen Rocca: Imagist Classic Hits (Chicago: Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2006), pg. #5.
4 Tony Knipe et al., Who Chicago?: An Exhibition of Contemporary Imagists: Adrian, Bowman, Knipe, Musgrave (Sunderland: Sunderland Arts Centre, 1980), pg. #10.
5 Dennis Adrian et al., Who Chicago?: An Exhibition of Contemporary Imagists: Adrian, Bowman, Knipe, Musgrave (Sunderland: Sunderland Arts Centre, 1980), pg. #16.
6 Ibid, pg. #18.
7 Tony Knipe et al., Who Chicago?: An Exhibition of Contemporary Imagists: Adrian, Bowman, Knipe, Musgrave (Sunderland: Sunderland Arts Centre, 1980), pg. #10.