Immunity from Borders
The Irreconcilable Jenny Heishman
courtesy of Prole Drift
Jenny Heishman is from Florida. She lives on Bainbridge Island now (and has been in Seattle for several years), which is a different manner of beach entirely. The aesthetics of Florida and Seattle are as opposing as their positions in the country. And Florida and Seattle extend two very different propositions about land and nature and color and how to live—each with its own built-in fantasies.
As an artist, Heishman takes the irreconcilable contradictions of these places and makes them jostle and overlap, in sculptures and paintings that feel super-contemporary and relevant despite their unapologetic obscurity. Her visual cues are things that are already embedded in your mind's eye, but that don't hold an honored place: the primary-colored striped blanket that lives in your trunk in case you decide to go to the beach, the awful high-tone-mimicry architecture of the mini-mall shoppes in a place like Madison Park.
Once, back when she was still showing at the now-defunct Howard House, Heishman did an entire, slick series inspired by golf courses. At the Olympic Sculpture Park last summer, she showed a cheerful green-and-white-striped awning mounted on a concrete retaining wall, chipperly advertising nothing—reminding you of the ice-cream-stand culture that's missing from Seattle's rocky waterfront, where amateur zoologists roam instead. Yet her version of a Mount Rainier landscape is unlike anything glossy or Floridian, and unlike the cutesiness of a place like Bainbridge. The sculpture is a pile of stuff—a gray-and-white blob of cast paint, smooth at the bottom and cratery on top, framed by a piece of plum paper topped with a tiny yellow triangle—all balancing on a skinny shelf bracket, which she screwed to the wall of someone's apartment in a one-night-only show. Her work is where obscurity and nouveau riche unapologetically meet.
Her new show at Prole Drift, Prop Shop, is one room plus a long chamber that's empty except for a pair of paintings on the far wall. In the front room, there are several objects that relate both to the wall and the floor. You first see five baskets made of aluminum foil: three sitting on the floor, one higher up on a naked milk crate, and a fifth one still higher—as if they were forming some kind of apotheosis—on an invisible shelf covered by a drop cloth spray-painted the colors of a tropical sunset. The drop cloth is tacked loosely to the wall above, so one of its sides falls onto the basket.
There's so much wrong with these baskets. Calling them baskets is a stretch of a noun. (This is where Heishman always gets me, on this low-lying level of noun-gone-wrong.) There's a crisscrossing pattern on them. But that's a reference to weaving, and these things are just foil. It's crinkly from having been shaped and reshaped. What's great is, foil shows its cards. Its past is on the surface—you can't really erase foil back to its original state—and its future's up in the air. These empty foil vessels could be crushed by a small dog.
At the show's opening, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of these baskets, looking at them forever. I had to pull the artist aside. She explained that she applied the patterns in the form of crisscrossing colored tape when the foil was still flat and lying in sheets, before she shaped it. She said she studied Japanese ceramics back in the day, and that if you shape the edges of a piece so it casts a sizable shadow, it will look heavy, like it has a life of its own. All this, in foil and a milk crate and drop cloth.
But, okay, this is Prop Shop. It's backstage? Onstage? What distortions come from just being looked at from varying distances? Props are less or more real than what they represent. Onstage, you have to project in weird, broad ways to seem natural from a distance; you have to do things that would seem unnatural up close. Mimicry is complicated business. Turf, for instance, makes grass look natural, native—when both, like these baskets, are unnatural constructs. Props.
Across the room, there's a series of Xeroxed photographs of works-in-progress deposited inside two pieces of found furniture. Standing next to them, I realize that with minimum intellectual contortion, I could probably find a way to find this interesting—but the object doesn't give me the fuel. Sometimes Heishman's unapologetic obscurity works, sometimes not. Somehow that doesn't diminish the excitement of her shows. (Her work is mysteriously trustworthy over time. This year, she was shortlisted for the Stranger Genius Award and was the winner of Seattle Art Museum's Betty Bowen Award.)
The paintings in the back room are older, and I'm not entirely sure they're really part of Prop Shop, segregated with only the company of their lights. They are watercolor on paper. Each portrays a ghost, sort of—a piece of fabric draped over an unseen structure that causes the fabric to bend and fold in on itself in complicated ways. The paintings are only a collection of bright, beach-ball-colored stripes on white paper; there are no outlines of the fabrics to guide you in the illusion, the way a blanket would have edges in a photograph. And yet Heishman has taken care to make sure that the stripes drape "true"—that you can follow a red stripe over here and see how it would fall there. Giving herself immunity from borders, Heishman yet stays faithful to her ghost of fabric. Was an actual blanket ever in front of her in the first place? It's halfway gone now, the white half just a series of hovering blanks. Every great Heishman is a self-contained ghost of mimicry.