air space
SOIL Artist Cooperative, 264-8061.
Through April 1.

Some things only appear to be inexplicable. Animal attraction, it turns out, is due to pheromones, and at last count there are about 30,000 genes determining the same number of things about our bodies, and perhaps our selves. This too can be true in the art world, when work affects you on some level you can't articulate, and this very vagueness struck me in the middle of air space, Jenny Heishman's series of sculptural installations at SOIL: I loved the work, but for the life of me could not say why.

When in doubt, look carefully. In the gallery's largest room, Sliding Scale travels the whole length of a wall. Long sheets of tracing paper painted with elongated ovals are stretched between the wall and the floor at varying heights, so that they appear to be rising or falling, depending on where you stand. The painted areas, which start at bright yellow and progress by degrees through orange to red, have puckered the paper into long ripples. It's tremendously lovely to look at: the variation in surfaces (rippling paint, smooth paper), the implied kinetic motion of the sheets, the bright, clear colors. In the corner is Party Favor, a huge wavy piece of clear Mylar, held in shape by undulating orange polystyrene forms, that appears to be suspended in the air (in fact it's propped up on clear poles). There's something altogether friendly and funny about this work; these days it's rare to see funny out on the town without its constant companion, irony.

The other works in air space are decidedly cooler in tone. In one room, a pair of aqua-colored balloons hangs from a scooped paper form; the dark gray floor is painted with curving white lines that suggest paving stones. The hanging balloons (you can't avoid thinking about testicles, I'm afraid) sway ever so slightly after you walk past them: The art is activated, as it were, after you look at it, and I love work that puts pressure on received notions of perception. And in the last room, the smallest, there is nothing more than a mirror on the ceiling and a doorway through which a wedge of Party Favor is visible.

That's all there is to air space; it's a bravely minimal show, not in the minimalist sense, but in a controlled, confident one. I met with Heishman a few days later in the gallery to try to deconstruct my happy-but-unsubstantiated reaction to her show. We talked about the idea of space, especially with reference to some of her earlier works, which often involve forms suspended from the ceiling that require you to step into them, usually obscuring your head and constricting, or at least altering, the space around you. As Heishman talked about sculpting space with form, I began to see the works in terms of their effect on the air around them. I realized that Sliding Scale dissolved the wall altogether. The space Party Favor describes is unusual, both tangible--because it's defined by the curved plastic, because it's actually blocking a doorway--but also see-through, not quite there (a great deal like the enormous forms created out of various kinds of plastic by Los Angeles artist Carlos Mollura). This particular shape is based on the Elizabethan neck ruff, which cleanly divided the virgin queen's head from her body, a rather moral take on spatial differentiation.

The balloon sculpture issubtler. Heishman's allusions here are to the body: the balloons as feet (not testicles, shame on me), the curved paper form as pelvis. The gently moving balloons create a changing negative space between them; their shadows circle over the irregular paving stones. The work's title, Space Divided Space, ties it to the kind of division implied by Party Favor--the head above, the body below--and suddenly the mirror on the ceiling in the last room makes sense. Here Heishman has again divided space into two parts, by adding a level above you, and again you negotiate the space with your own movements: in this case, by looking up.

Of course, it's not necessary to go in search of pointy-headed reasons to enjoy this work. It can also be quite enough to spend some time in the gallery (preferably when empty) and to feel the way the air shape-shifts around the sculptures, and around you. Ultimately, air space works because you feel safe in Heishman's hands. Her conception of space is fluid, but her vision is solid.