In 1933, the eminent, genre-bending Japanese novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki, composed a landmark essay on aesthetics entitled, In Praise of Shadows. It is more stream of consciousness than formal essay, part epic poem, part cultural theory. It revealed something different about the obvious; something deeper about the overlooked qualities of space and light. It led us by the hand back into the value of darkness.
Wendy Heldmann’s paintings also explore the obvious and seemingly unimportant, leading us into the abandoned, post-production, end-of-term architecture studio. This world is heaped with the artifacts of architectural exploration: scraps of paper, foamcore, laser-cut acrylic sheets, cardboard coffee containers, plastic bottles still partially filled with colorful liquids, dusty respirators, demolished models, battered, smudged monitors, chairs overturned onto tool trolleys, the spidery arms of darkened desk lamps. All of this becomes worth looking over again.
More after the break.
Though immediately recognizable in a material sense, the cluttered studio is rendered alien in cheerful colors and bright illumination. Ms Heldmann has captured the final moments before a studio is broken down for good and moved on. This is especially true for studios at SCI-Arc. Each semester sees temporary, informal encampments go up in makeshift fashion throughout the formalized rectangular spaces of the quarter-mile long freight depot it calls home.
In her paintings she has frozen the intensity of the all-night realm once it has come to a full stop. This is the exhausted world of completion, but the paintings are not celebratory at all. They speak more to absence, regret, longing, missed opportunities, and abandonment. Through a precision of appearance in already forgotten, no longer needed objects, she communicates the disappearance of something larger. The titles read like lines from the poems of Frank O’Hara. There is more cause for suspicion, a hesitation, and wariness.
GH: In architecture school we are surrounded by this chaotic accumulation every day, piles and piles of inspirational junk in the studios. Speaking as an artist with sensitivity to frames and contexts, what was it that drew you to this subject in the first place?
WH: In general I am interested in clutter as a kind of evidence of an event that has unfolded. The scale of the event can exist on a personal level – big lifestyle shifts like a breakup, leaving a job, or moving but I’ve also looked at events on a larger scale like natural disasters, urban public parks… In this case I am interested in clutter as a still-life subject – a portrait of the person via their belongings.
In a broader sense, what is it about wreckage, refuse, or the left-behind that intrigues you?
It is evocative of a specific event, but not necessarily traceable – it is a spectacle all its own, though heavy with possible narrative content.
Titles are significant. The ones you have chosen are very evocative of loss. Is this a commentary on the darker side of studio culture or the consequences of studio on students’ outside lives–outside lives that can sustain damage due to the intensity and demands of studio life? They seem to indicate the severing of relationships.
They are a poetic pastiche. Themes of love and commitment are ubiquitous and infinite and I like how these titles can add an additional layer of content to the work not necessarily accessible from the paintings alone.
Who are your greatest influences in terms of painting?
Lots of contemporary influences, but some folks I always go back to are Peter Doig, Alice Neel, George Inness, and Giorgio Morandi. I also feel greatly inspired by words and film, people like Loorie Morre, WS Merwin, Raymond Carver, Werner Herzog, Stan Brakhage.
I can’t help but notice something about Nam June Paik in these studio paintings, even thought he was more deliberate in the way he set up his piles of everyday objects and toys and whatnot.
At SCI-Arc, you work in this setting every day as Public Programs Coordinator. Was there a moment when you starting reading the environment differently and imagining scripts for it?
I can relate to the activity of the students from having been an art student – so the clutter associated with creative production is somewhat similar. It is a convention of still life painting for important things to be brought together on a table (in this case, a desk), so I have always been aware of the potential of these spaces. I started photographing them in 2004.
What is the criteria for a photograph before it becomes a subject worthy of interpretation through painting?
It’s a matter of intuition mostly – for this group of paintings I think it was important that the studios were at an end-of-term moment – and that the desks themselves were cluttered with enough objects to create a dense yet flexible visual space – not incomprehensible, but not completely graspable in terms of describing a specific activity, project, assignment etc.
This is the side of architecture the outside world doesn’t get to see. In many ways it depicts the reality of the process more than the finished, polished renderings or models. I’ve often thought that the evidence of process can be more interesting than the final product. The end result often discards or leaves behind little moments or insights that were important steps of discovery.
About Wendy Heldmann
Wendy Heldmann received an MA with distinction in Visual Arts from Goldsmiths University of London and a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute after studying civil engineering at Cornell University and the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. Heldmann’s paintings generally depict the quiet messes and empty disasters of everyday life expressed in an unashamed consciousness for the sinking passing of time and a disposable view of the built environment and the metaphors that accompany it. Her work has been exhibited and published nationally. She is represented by Marine Contemporary, Venice, CA. www.wendyheldmann.com. Her show, You Are So Beautiful and I Am a Fool, opens June 10 at SCI-Arc.
The Indicator, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture, is written by Guy Horton. Based in Los Angeles, he is a blogger for Metropolis and frequent contributor to GOOD, Architectural Record, The Architect’s Newspaper and Architect Magazine. He is also a contributing architecture critic for The Huffington Post. Follow Guy on Twitter.
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