PHILADELPHIA — In Hollis Heichemer’s current exhibition at Gross McCleaf Gallery, the works on Mylar have the nuance of skin, as if each surface protects an inner world of thought and feeling. At first, the upper portion of “Intimate Associations 12” (2016), a painterly abstraction in ink and oil, appears blue-green, but beneath that are layers of red and yellow, like flecks of light. On the right side of the blue-green expanse, stuck in the paint, lies a thin strand of brush hair. Meanwhile, the lower half, dominated by swipes of red and brown, upsets the austerity of the top, as the blue-green shifts downward to a murky white and the anarchic mass of color in the middle of the bottom third seeks precedence over the calm.
As a surface, Mylar doesn’t work like canvas or paper. The type of Mylar used by Heichemer is opaque and nonabsorbent, and so it is harder to know when a particular stroke was made. The ink lines in “Intimate Associations 4,” for instance, seem to have been made before she applied any paint. But those marks may have actually been made further along in the work’s creation. Light moves back and forth through Mylar, even after it has been painted over, which complicates our understanding of the work’s history.
Evan Fugazzi, a painter and assistant director of Gross McCleaf, mentioned to me that Heichemer started some of these paintings in New Hampshire, where she works part of the year. Sometimes she would leave the painting there for months before returning to it. Other times, she would bring the work back to her studio in Philadelphia.
I got to thinking about the ways these works developed as a result of breaks in time, as well as shifting locales. In Fugazzi’s view, whatever happens in the painting during that process is internal. That idea rings true throughout the show; Heichemer’s work is deeply introspective. As the painter has stated in a 2015 interview with Philly Voice, “The nature of our mind, imagination and the question of ‘what is reality’ are subjects which interest me.” The series title, “Intimate Associations,” implies that these works are grounded in the personal, yet open to the viewer’s own associative thinking.
But Heichemer could have in mind another, more particular meaning to the phrase. “Intimate association” falls under the category of “freedom of association,” which is a legal right in modern democracies that allows people to choose their affiliations, whether it be at the level of family, or in the decision to form a trade union. While the US Constitution does not directly mention the freedom of association, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is a fundamental part of the freedom of speech. I can only speculate whether Heichemer was painting her series with this concept in mind, but her work does pose the viewer a choice. Either we are taken in by the intimacy of these paintings, trusting in the sureness of her hand, or we turn away from their direct attempt to engage our own subjectivity.
The vertical deep green band running down the left edge in “Colors of Life,” one of two works on canvas, offers a perspective similar to peeking around a curtain or a wall. In this work, Heichemer locates a sense of composure in this edge, while the rest of the canvas directs its energies outward. Within that kineticism, though, lies a thick, dark line that marks off a small half-moon with shades of green and yellow at the top. Even amid the dominating energy of the black, yellow, and brown at the center of this work, Heichemer creates a more subtle area of focus.
As I’ve been thinking about this show, I’ve found myself returning to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), in which he discusses, among other things, the history and significance of oil painting. As Berger put it, “Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.”
In Heichemer’s case, the thing she depicts, if we can call it a thing, seems to be visual experience itself. First and foremost, this experience belongs to her, but by virtue of our participation, these works come to represent our experience as well. Berger goes on to say that when the market is more demanding than the art, the result is “hack work.” Even though Heichemer’s work hangs for sale in a gallery, it’s clear her work opposes easy commodification. It seems unlikely that there are many takers for the ideals that Heichemer declares as her driving interests: “the mind, the imagination, and the question of ‘what is reality.’” Fortunately, some things can never go up for sale. We’ll need them in the long days ahead.
Hollis Heichemer: Imminence continues at Gross McCleaf Gallery (127 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through December 23.