In yesterday's Chicago Tribune, critic Lori Waxman reviewed
the exhibition Love Letters to Antarctica, at Swimming Pool Project
Space. In her review she
mistakenly attributed Annie Heckman's video, "Letter to a lost penguin," to
artist Lorien Jordan, also in Love Letters to Antarctica. It's a mistake we've all made, whether publicly or privately. I
remember embarrassing myself back when I was a student in a community college
photography class nearly half my life ago, by attributing Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now to Stanley Kubrick. I know, terrible, right? But we've all done it, haven't we?
In some ways this error could be taken as a compliment: that the exhibition is so cohesive, the
individual identities of the artists involved become conflated. There is certainly good reason for
this; both artists' work is about Antarctica, and both contain imagery of
penguins. What Waxman may have
missed is that Heckman's installation, "A letter which did not reach its
destination," functions in large part as a climactic epilogue to the video,
"Letter to a lost penguin." The
penguin itself is present, in just about the crudest form possible: a foam block, which Heckman carved and
painted by tracing a direct projection from the animation. It sat unobtrusively in a dark corner
of the installation, and to be fair it was easy to miss. (Someone pointed it out to me at the
Heckman discussed this crudity of rendering in her artist's
talk (Sunday, August 22nd, 2pm, at Swimming Pool), and the issue of awkward
rendering in general. Her
materials are simple, in some cases the common products a child might use in a
craft project (paper, barbeque skewers, and string) and in others specialized
industrial products (a coating compound called Winterstone, and rather costly
industrial-grade phosphorescent paint).
Heckman's rendering has always had a childlike awkwardness to it, from
the dead, decomposing mouse in her 2007 animation "Becoming Formless," which
was my first exposure to her work, to the current exhibition. This awkwardness is one of the
parameters within which Heckman works, a limitation perhaps (like all
parameters) but never a failed attempt at doing something else.
Illusion and realism are something I aspire to in my own
work, and it's not easy. Realistic
representation is a great challenge for an artist's skill, and it is seems
strange that some of the artists who "ooh and ah" us with their amazing
verisimilitude, such as Koons and Piccinini, actually delegate the tough
challenges to studio assistants.
When Waxman refers to Heckman's installation as "DIY," then, she's on to
more than she knows. Not that
Heckman's afraid to outsource (I helped install the blackout curtains, for
example) but she isn't showing anything of which she isn't capable of doing for herself.
Waxman's criticism of Heckman's installation, that it "wants
to be fantastical but is, unfortunately, too scrappy to pull it off," is a fair
point, but one that misses the mark of what the work is about. High polish and verisimilitude are
undeniably impressive when done right:
Gottfried Helnwein's "Child" paintings, Jeff Koons' faux-inflatables, or
Patricia Piccinini's eerily uncanny monsters would all fall flat if their
slickly unquestionable surfaces were any less perfect. This isn't what Heckman's after, and to
dissect her work on a technical level is so far off the mark as to remind me of
that old Kids in the Hall sketch about what a lousy carpenter Jesus was.
That the installation is "scrappy," "like a kindergartener's version of the
South Pole," is an accurate observation, but also a misguided one. Heckman's
perspective is that a too-perfect presentation becomes oppressive, a Fascist
Disneyland in which only one interpretation is possible. Instead of outsourcing her work to a
cadre of Imagineers,
like Koons' or Piccinini's studio assistants, who create seamless but sterile
illusions, Heckman does her own
dirty work. Heckman isn't a
skill-based artist, in the sense of those of us, myself included, who seek in
part to show off their draftsmanship and craft, with a sort of "Look what I can
do!" Rather, she's a visual
storyteller, using the language she has available to her in order to say what
she has to say. Awkward and
childlike perhaps, her video and installation work are about a personal
narrative transposed into a world that is absolutely fantastical, not despite
this awkwardness but in part because of it.
Love Letters to Antarctica is on view at Swimming Pool Project Space through September 12th. If you can't make it to the show, you can view Annie Heckman's video, "Letter to a lost penguin," on YouTube.
For some other views on this exhibition, check out Paul Germanos' review on Chicago Critical, Lauren Weinberg's review on Time Out Chicago, and Darrel Roberts' review on Chicago Art Examiner, as well as my own review which is scheduled to appear in the Fall 2010 issue (both online and print editions) of Art Pulse.
Jeriah is an artist, educator, writer, and snack enthusiast. You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com,
and read his columns at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine.
Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.