Artist Paul Heyer and exhibition curator Omar Kholeif discuss Heyer’s artistic influences and the creation of his first solo museum exhibition during this event filmed in the MCA Commons.
January Parkos Arnall: Tonight’s event is part of a new MCA series of public programs that we’re doing called In Progress, which is meant to give visitors a glimpse into the working practices of artists in all different kinds of ways. We’re thrilled tonight to focus on the work of Paul Heyer, whose Chicago Works exhibition is currently on display upstairs. Heyer’s exhibition, which was organized by cocurators Omar Kholeif and Erin Toale is his first solo museum exhibition and his most immersive to date, creating a multisensory, dream-like experience for visitors, and I encourage you all to head up there after this talk if you haven’t been already. How many have been already? This is your test. Yes, you win. So tonight, Paul will discuss his work and process with Omar Kholeif, my colleague, who is Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives here at the MCA. So help me in welcoming Paul and Omar.
Omar Kholeif: So I forgot I was giving a talk today, so I didn’t put on my nice shoes, and so Paul looks much spiffier than I do. And also there is the—just want to clarify, we’re not in a fight with each other, a big expanse. We just wanted you to be able to see the projector. So, putting together Paul’s exhibition was a very gratifying and emotionally rich experience. I first encountered Paul Heyer’s work in a gallery in Los Angeles circa 2014 without actually knowing that it was his work. And was very captured by its dreamlike qualities, and when I moved to Chicago, a mutual friend called Kevin McGary said, “You need to meet this artist, Paul Heyer.”
And I hadn’t actually put two and two together. And we had a drink, we got to know each other, and it’s kind of weird when you know someone socially, you don’t necessarily do a studio visit with them, but I started to Google his work without him knowing and said, “I would really like that studio visit, if you don’t mind.” And when I went, my breath was taken away particularly by these flower paintings that had these kind of vortex-like portals in them which to me spoke to kind of very interior darkness that just resonated with me on a phenomenological level. So first, I invited Paul to be part of a group show we staged here called Eternal Youth.
And he made two incredible paintings for that, and then quickly after invited him to do a Chicago Works exhibition here. And for this evening, In Progress, I asked Paul to really dig in deep and to think about what are some of the inspirations and things that have moved him and shaped him as an artist.
It’s one of the things I’m most excited about is the lives of artists, but also how they come to be those artists. So, I’m going to hand it over to Paul in a second and ask him to kind of take us through this journey, and I might interject with some questions, and of course there’ll be room for you to talk, too. So over to you, my friend.
Paul Heyer: Thank you, and thank you everybody for coming. This is so nice. So yeah, like Omar said, I want to start off by showing you some things that have been sort of in the background of my mind or influence me either recently or when I was a kid. First is this poem I found on Twitter maybe a week ago. But I was like, “This is the best poem I’ve ever read.” Because it’s so simple. It’s written by this six-year-old kid, I guess he lives in DC, for some sort of first grader anthology, but it works on so many levels. You know, on the personal level, maybe it’s talking about the literal.
Maybe it’s talking about some kind of like social justice things. It works on all these levels, but as you read it, you just can’t help but be excited. So it’s this sort of notion of absolute simplicity and contagious excitement. So kind of like keep this in mind as I talk because this is sort of the ultimate like, goal of mine is to keep things as simple as they can and sort of keep in touch with this childlike sense of wonder or naïveté, but also find in that wonder ways to kind of like, detonate it, if that makes sense.
OK: Do you want to read it out for us?
PH: Yeah. So this is called “The Tiger” by Nael, age six. “The tiger / He destroyed his cage / Yes / YES / The tiger is out.” So. I love that. And so sort of keeping with this theme of childlike wonder, the next thing I want to show you is this—I’ll just play it for you. It’s short.
Video: [Mr. Rogers is speaking.] Hi neighbor, welcome again to this neighborhood. I’d like to show you something. Do you know what this is? Maybe if I press this button. This is a cassette player with a little cassette in here, and there’s nothing written on it, so we’ll have to play it to see what it is. [He starts singing a song in an auto-tuned voice]
Do you ever imagine things? Are they scary things? Do you ever imagine things? The things you’d like to have? Do you ever see a cat’s eyes in the dark and wonder what they were? Did you ever pretend about things like that before? Did you ever grow anything in the garden of your mind? You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind. It’s good to be curious about many things. You can think about things and make believe, all you have to do is think, and they’ll grow.
PH: So it’s really cheesy, I know that.
OK: I think it’s great.
PH: I think it’s really great because first of all, he starts off by calling you neighbor, which is like, immediately setting the stage of total inclusivity. He’s not judging you, no matter who you are, watching wherever you are. You’re part of his sort of like, neighborly tribe. I think that’s kind of radical in a way. And the other thing is what I like about this video is it’s him sort of talking about imagination as kind of like an elemental building block and elemental option or tool for change. And he’s talking about how that can be scary, how that can make things grow.
He’s comparing imagination to a garden, and that’s another theme in my work is imagination as sort of like primal goo of creation and kind of trying to enact that in the viewer as well.
And so then I want to show some pieces I grew up seeing as a kid, as a teenager here in Chicago, and the first one is the Kiki Smith piece, which is a terrifying prone waxen figure. But I remember when I first saw this piece I was like, “How is this art? Why would anybody want to look at this?” But that’s why it’s amazing. It really stuck with me as a kid.
Later on, I actually had Kiki Smith as a teacher, and she was surprisingly super nice and like, very spacey and super generous.
OK: She didn’t talk about dead things that looked weird.
PH: No, I mean she was into sort of dreamy stuff and like, flowers and antlers and just do whatever you want. So it makes sense that some of that dreamy so I can go in this direction. But I just remember being maybe nine years old or I guess I must have been ten years old, being like, “What is this?” And it’s called Blood Pool. It sounds like a slasher movie, you know? And the next one is a piece by Ava Hess. Again, I was like, “What is this? Why would you want to look at this?” I sort of, on some level, recognized it was meant to be like a painting, but sort of this Beetlejuiced, mutant painting, obviously very violent.
Entering your space, and I just hated it. And I hated the last piece too. I hated it so much. I’m like, “Why is this art? I hate this so much. I just want a real painting. I’m a little kid painter. I like painting. Why are you doing this?” But now when I go back to the museum, I’m like, “This is the best.”
OK: And we just went back to see it together on Sunday.
PH: Yeah. And it’s— I wish I had—you have to sort of— it’s … big is what I’m trying to say.
OK: I never saw Beetlejuice in it before, but okay.
PH: Yeah, because remember when she’s making all those sculptures that are kind of these surrealisty sculptures, and they come alive because the house is haunted. So this painting is sort of like the wire support is like coming alive to strangle the viewer.
And sort of like— and it also seems to me talking about the history of violence in this male-dominated world of painting and like, revenge, in a way. And the paint—the support around it is kind of bandaged up like some kind of Frankenstein or something. I don’t know, I think I was right to be scared by it, but I think it’s really cool.
OK: I like how you’re blurring your pop cultural references with your art historical references.
PH: Well I mean in a way, I think art is entertainment for a lot of people, and I think it’s useful to think about it in those terms.
OK: Let’s keep going.
PH: Here is this Polke painting, which again, I thought was terrifying. I didn’t really understand historical references, but it’s this huge watch tower, even with these geese in the bottom. I was like, “This is spooky. This is too weird. I don’t like this.” Again, now it’s my favorite paintings there.
OK: So fear seemed to drive you a lot.
PH: Yeah, those are the ones that really stuck with me, the ones that scared me. This one, this Franz Kline, I just thought it was cool. I no longer think it’s cool, but you’ll see why it’s sort of influenced my work a lot. This sort of Japanese calligraphy influence AbEx stuff. There’s one outside very similar.
OK: There’s one over there, but you actually like Franz Kline.
PH: I don’t know. I think in the ‘50s, I’d have been like yeah, he’s cool, but now I think he’s kind of a—I don’t know.
OK: But you—it’s like you can have influences that you can still feel ambivalent about, right?
PH: Yeah, that’s definitely what he is. I’m not proud that he’s an influence, but he is. That’s a fact.
OK: I’m not a fan, just letting you know.
PH: That’s fine. Then this Picabia painting, which I always loved as a kid, too, and I actually only recently realized the story behind this painting was he was on some transatlantic voyage going to the Armory Show in New York in 19—probably—12, and there was this Dominican priest who kept watching this Polish dancer do her dances. And so this painting is kind of about, you know, the clashing together of the spiritual and body and desire and temptation.
And now, if you see it in the painting, like oh yeah, that makes sense. It’s kind of luscious and waving back and forth, like this boat, and but what you’ll see as I get to my work is that sort of clashing of the spiritual and bodily is a theme in my work as well.
OK: Do you know what material that was made out of?
PH: I think it’s just oil paint.
OK: Super 3-D.
PH: Yeah, but it’s just like glossy oil paint. And this Vija Celmins piece, which actually I had mostly seen in a book because I had a book of work from The Art Institute. And what I found out recently when I was doing the slideshow was that a guard in Philadelphia was on loan, took a key and slashed through it because he hated it so much. So I don’t know, somebody hates it.
OK: But that I love.
PH: Yeah, it’s beautiful. So obviously, it’s like a night sky, and I used to always wonder, “How did they make that?”
But this kind of like field of dots is something that obviously got deep in my work as you’ll see. And then I think this is last, is this Gober piece which again, I thought was terrifying. It’s got this sort of like hole running through it that seemed just so violent and terrifying, and it is.
OK: And I feel like that has a real link to the flower painting.
PH: Exactly. And then so this was my first show in LA called Young and Full of Cum. And I was like I work on this show, I knew the sort of vibe of the show was me kind of like earthy, sultry, sweaty, stinky, and I was listening to some song, and the phrase came out. I was like, “That would be a good title for a show. That’s catchy.” I remember my dealer was like, “I don’t know if we should do that, Paul. That’s not a good idea.” I was like, “No, no, we have to do it.” I’m glad we did it.
OK: I’m glad you did it, too, even though it’s been used before.
PH: Yeah, but that’s also why it’s kind of fun. Again, it’s like pop culture reference, it’s kind of like cheeky and fun. So here is a view of the show. This is when Night Gallery started off as a nighttime only gallery that was open from 10 until 2 in the morning. And all the walls were painted black. So this show, keep in mind, was sort of viewed at like a nighttime—not only environment, but like mindset—and so what we see here is this chair that I had designed, that I had built that was designed to take the weight off of the viewer. So you sort of like lean into this leather pad kind of, and you’re sort of lean at an angle, and you sort of relax.
And the idea was to sort of give the viewer relief, that’s it. And like unbeknownst to me, apparently, it had a lot of formal similarities to like these sort of sex slings. And I was like, “Oh, I guess.” Like I didn’t know about these.
OK: So that came after you made that piece?
PH: Yeah, I didn’t know about this device, actually.
OK: You don’t view that every day?
PH: Yeah, so what’s interesting is this device also is about letting go of control, obviously, and so you’re sort of at the whim of whoever you’re with. But like the chair that I made, you get to let go of your control, and it’s like, give into gravity and take it off of your body. So that’s a fun parallel. And here is one of the centerpiece paintings, a sort of transparent stainglassy net thing.
OK: So how did you get to this kind of style?
PH: You know, I don’t know. I just had always loved Polke and his resin pieces, I’d always wanted to make one of my own. What actually happened was I saw—I heard about somebody making resin net pieces, and I was like, “But I wanted to do that. I had that idea already.” So I was so mad that I went out and made one, and I love this idea of transparent things, of the sort of liminal border space, this line, this surface that you can sort of pass through. This has a lot of that. It has like, the net, it has the stained glass, it has the shelves that live below that luminal space.
And so this one is called Truffle B.O., and you can kind of—
OK: What’s the truffle bit?
PH: It’s just like smellness, sort of amber colors seemed very truffle B.O.-y to me.
OK: Am I seeing sea shells on there?
PH: Yeah, so these are all shells I collected in Malibu.
OK: So you were living in LA at that point.
OK: You didn’t give a biographical note. So, you were born in Chicago in the suburbs, and then when did you move to—you moved to New York for school, right?
PH: Yeah, for college. I went to New York in 2000 and I was there for about ten years. After grad school, I was like, “I’ve got to get out of here! I’ve been at this party too long.” So I moved to LA, helped my friend Davida start Night Gallery, and then that was in 2009, late 2009. Then this show came about a year later.
OK: And then the allure of Chicago and its beautiful winters just—he’s serious. He loves snow, this guy.
PH: I love all the seasons.
OK: So you moved back here in 2014, ‘15?
PH: End of ‘14. Yeah.
OK: Just a case of “I want to move.”
PH: So here is the same piece from a different angle. And this piece is sort of situated on the ground, so it becomes like a door, it becomes like a fellow figure in this space. Then shortly after—I was still in this transparent idea and started making these cowboys. So this is the first cowboy, Bandit, because the cross bar kind of becomes like a mask across his eyes. But yeah, I just wanted to make paintings you could see through. Because I just felt like it’s how reality operates. Nothing is as firm as we think it is.
OK: Were you also thinking about issues of gender and sexuality or iconography around gender and sexuality with these or not?
PH: I think there was a little bit of like, the cowboys, like classic American figure, like pinup figure in a way. There’s a lot of repressed sexuality, this like man alone on the range. You know?
OK: Also like the Marlboro man maybe?
PH: Yeah, this classic icon of American masculinity, sure. But I also was thinking of them as sensitive creatures, these sort of zen monks of the prairie by themselves with the stars and their thoughts, kind of cut off from society. I like the portraits on that level, too. But shortly after that, I started making this series of figurative paintings as my grandmother was dying. As I went back to Chicago to visit her, I’d make these drawings when I wasn’t by her bed. I’d draw things around her house or around her property, and so she died, but I eventually made these drawings into paintings. And so this new series is all sort of with that in mind.
And so this is sort of hole by her house. You can light the shelves and light the sort of markings on the sort of like dashes, things, sort of littering the surface, things you have to look through. And later on, I kind of put two and two together, realized it’s a lot like ash, which is very deathly. This is a sort of lamp post outside of her house, has a sort of dystopian feel to it, the red lighting, the American flag, the ash swirling around. This was kind of a dark show. This was like a two-person show I did in New York at Rachel Uffner. It was all about death apparently.
OK: But there’s also kind of—if a kind of cartoon-like quality to something very dark.
PH: Yeah, for sure. The drawings were just made as kind of simple line drawings, but it even has a kind of like Kippenberger-y and Disney-like, animated coming to life quality, very cartoony.
Which I always kind of—I’m not sure why, but I just kind of like it. Maybe it’s the thing with the childhood, Mr. Rogers thing, but it’s a language everybody can find access to. Here is a sort of Egyptian one. She had a postcard that I found from the Met. But again, very deathly artifact in the tomb. These lily pads above.
OK: That wasn’t an homage to me?
PH: I didn’t know you yet.
OK: My Egyptian self.
PH: This kind of Egyptian faience blue, which is the chalice. Not the same postcard obviously, but you get the idea of the influences.
OK: So that was a kind of different—these are different kinds of influences that penetrated the work as well.
PH: Yeah, these are all sort of taken directly from my grandmother’s home. So she had this postcard that I kind of like copied in my hands, and some were from drawings and things I had seen around her house.
OK: So in that sense, the everyday plays an important role as well in terms of what you’re thinking about subject-wise.
PH: Yeah, for sure. But also when I was making this body of work, I also wasn’t really thinking about like death as a subject matter. It’s only in retrospect that I see how heavily it’s imbued in these images. Here is these sort of Etruscan birds flying through these rings, kind of Monet-esque background. She had a big Monet poster in her house.
OK: And is that history of like French painting, the Monet-era painting? You’ve talked to me about how it kind of bears a weight on you, and I’m curious just like where—how do you negotiate the entire—history is—painting is the most canonical art historical subject or medium, excuse me, but it’s also one of the most, perhaps, undertheorized in the academy. So how do you negotiate that whole expanse?
PH: That’s a good question. I kind of had a freak out for a while in grad school. I was like, “I’m going to go to grad school. It’s going to be like a party. We’re going to drink a lot and talk about art and do interventions,” and then everyone expects me to have some kind of critical theory about what I was doing, and I was like, “I am not prepared for this. I do not know what I’m doing.” It was a real mind-bleh because I had so many ideas and painting is so rife with stuff to address and stuff to do that I didn’t know what to do. I was paralyzed. Only by kind of deciding to move in a more instinctual way was I able to get through that. Because there is such a huge weight to it, and there’s so many things that should be addressed or should be corrected or so many avenues to explore.
I do have a set of ideas—and in all the shows that I show you, there’s too much going on, and this is like the reduced version of that, but there’s too many ideas. So I just kind of try to see what is—seems most urgent to me at the time.
OK: But another like art historical kind of reference, you know, we’ve never talked about this, but when you talk about the kind of cartoon-like quality when we think of the everyday, I just go to Warhol as a figure and think, you know, his relationship to popular culture must have played or had some influence on you, even if he wasn’t necessarily painting in this particular way that you’ve—
PH: Well Warhol is so great because he’s the one who is like, “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” And that’s a huge weight off your shoulder if you’re twenty-six years old in grad school and feeling the pressure, having to make something important, and you’re in so much debt. “Why am I doing this? This isn’t fun anymore.” You didn’t remember Warhol coming in and being like, “It doesn’t matter, just like make thirty of them and sell them.” It kind of was a nice relief. You know what I mean?
OK: Are you a fast painter then?
PH: Yeah, I’m a fast painter.
OK: How long does it take you to make—I mean you shouldn’t tell people this.
PH: I shouldn’t say, honestly. It depends on the piece, but yeah, I’m a fast painter.
OK: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye makes—she makes—she takes a day to make a painting, and she destroys them.
OK: You know Lynette Yiadom-Boakye? There’s a painting of hers over there in the second-floor gallery. And she makes a painting a day and she started to destroy them because she was like, “I don’t want to ruin my market. But also, I just don’t want everyone to have one.” So just letting you know you can also destroy your paintings if you want, or you can just give them all to me and I’ll keep them safe.
PH: Yeah, no, I work really fast. This was also a way for me to work through ideas. I can’t—I need to work through them physically. That helps a lot, so it’s good to make fast—
OK: This was still from around the time of your grandmother’s passing.
PH: Yeah, so this is 2012. Here is the sort of influence behind it. Here is the last piece from that show, this sort of Etruscan tree shape. And then living in LA, I saw this painting at LACMA of this—called Jellyfish Like the Moon from the 1700s.
And I was just like, “Oh my God, what is this?” You know? It’s figurative, it’s abstract, it’s like this analogy between this living creature and cosmic entity, this like sublime object in the sky. It’s so old. It also has a kind of cartoony element to it, this sort of playful, childlike analogy. And so, from here, I was like, “I’ve got to live here for a while.” So for my next show in LA, it’s called The Sun Can’t Compare. That’s a song by Larry Heard, who is like a big Chicago house DJ. And it goes like, “You are my light, the sun can’t compare, you are my beam, the moon can’t compare.”
OK: You can’t sing it?
PH: Something like that. I’m not going to sing it. So you have here these sort of—I’ll show you guys. So these three big diptychs that show snow falling.
And these are made on silk like a Japanese painting using Sumi ink like a Japanese painting. And I like that it can kind of be like doors, they can kind of be like—sorry, like windows. They’re portals in a way. They’re also like set pieces like in a theater, and so you have these two burnt chairs in front that suggests some kind of drama, and the chairs become props in this staged drama.
OK: And you’re also with these ones here, like do you—really think about the dematerialization of painting I would say.
PH: Yeah, because they’re transparent again, in a different way than the resin. So you have these millions of dots. Not literally millions, but these dots are the real like subject matter floating in this kind of painted, constructed ether, and breaking down this what is a painting, what is the structure, where does it lie. It’s these two pieces, and is it snow, is it stars, is it bubbles? Equating all those things together, too.
Then I came across this statue at the same time. He was—this statue of somebody chanting, and so each of those little figures coming out of his mouth is a syllable and this chant, this Buddhist chant, take you to the paradise place. And I was just like, “This is so beautiful.” You know? Here is these chairs in front of the one that’s called Snow Dawn. You can’t see in the color very well, but this is sort of peach-colored silk with silver-leaf dots in a black structure.
OK: Can you tell us why you choose—because the material often instead of say—I’m lost, but you know what I mean.
PH: Yeah, it started off with that jellyfish painting.
I was like, “I need to do this, whatever this is.” And I think part of it was like you said before, this weight of the history of painting, had become like materially embedded in canvas. So working on silk was a way to sort of get away from that. Also obviously, I love the transparency and sort of like tactile quality. It’s actually one of the most fire-resistant and strongest of all natural fibers. This is secretly super strong fiber, which I liked conceptually. But just also in-person has this sort of sheen to it, kind of like shines a little bit, and that’s really nice. So this one is the nighttime one. These are all made, like I said, with Sumi ink, which is made from burning wood. Here is the lightest one.
You can’t really see the dots, but in person you can. Here is a blue one, which seems more like bubbles. Then I made this one like night and day. This obviously felt to me like a yin yang thing, which is not just like chaos and order. That swirl in-between those two, but it’s traditionally thought of—
Like the masculine and feminine energies, and like the idea of these paintings also being a swirl of those two, like aconstantly renegotiating weather system instead of a spectrum or something. It’s a swirl that’s constantly changing. I like that idea a lot.
OK: Are you also thinking about history’s obstruction when you made these particular works?
PH: I thought a lot about Ellsworth Kelly, and that actually—that was in the slideshow earlier, that piece at the Art Institute that is sort of like these multicolored panels, and they’re kind of like vibrating the colors back and forth. But thinking about his shape panels a lot. It’s a colored object sitting on the wall and that’s it. So I like the sort of muteness of that. And so I have these chairs, which were first models of the universes, like the brooms from upstairs.
But these are chairs from my house that I just burned with a blowtorch and then glued these shells on. I like the idea of saying we don’t know the real shape of the universe. Let’s pretend that it’s whatever we want it to be. Let’s pretend that it’s a chair, and so the shells become planets or stars, and the burned black becomes the depth of space.
OK: Is the act of violence of burning the chair something special to you?
PH: Yeah, it’s really fun, and it’s really fun to light a chair on fire, you know? It’s really satisfying.
OK: And you put the brooms upstairs on fire, too, right?
OK: So we should be aware that you put—set things on fire?
PH: Yeah, I come from a long line of pyromaniacs actually. My mom is in the audience and she loves fires. That’s a fact.
PH: Yeah. And so I saw this picture online, and I guess it’s a classic brain buster. It’s like, both shadows are true, but neither one shows truth—that’s my typo—but we don’t really know what’s true about what we can perceive.
And so that’s why I am making these universe models because I want to challenge the viewer to be reminded of that. But they can like create their own image of how things actually work because we should all be participating in that. Also there’s a sort of—this is an oarfish as a banner, and I don’t know how I got the idea to make this thing, but then shortly after I started construction, all these ore fish, which are these deep deep deep sea dwelling fish that no one had seen alive before, started washing up on the coast of California. And I was like, “It’s not a coincidence.” And so I made this. It’s sort of like a beautiful French metallic silk with Sumi ink spots and this fiber optic glowing fin, because it had this beautiful red fin. Just kind of like hanging there, like centering the show.
So the show is very much about like sea and sky and snow. I’m always picturing the coasts of Alaska. You’re alone on this like rugged coast and it’s snowing, and you’re like, “Should I jump in?” That’s kind of the vibe of the show.
OK: You sound like you want to be a star of Brokeback Mountain or something. I don’t know.
PH: But colder. Just ice cold and snow, deep sea. So here is a fish alive. Somebody finally got a video of this one, I think in the Gulf of Mexico. You can see how cool they are. Right?
OK: So they’re extinct?
PH: No, they just live like 2,000 miles below the surface.
OK: So you rarely see them.
PH: Yeah. That’s why I was like this gesture of pulling this thing up from the depths and find the metaphor that you want, but it’s like the subconscious, pull it up and hang it there.
OK: Can you eat it?
PH: I don’t know. I’m sure you could, why not?
OK: You should try eating it. I’m sure it’s not delicious.
PH: I’m sure it’s fine. So here you can see the fin kind of glowing. I was told the ceilings were a lot taller than they were. Was not supposed to hit the floor. I have to say that.
OK: Bad galleries. Bad galleries.
PH: It was a mistake. So there’s also this mic stand there because we had hired the Lesbian and Gay Teen Center in LA this kid to sort of sing the song, what the show is titled after, at the opening, which is really beautiful. And then lastly from the show, I made this ring of glowing shells in the floor. So this is like about six feet across. These shells laying on the floor with this glowing liquid filling each one. And this was sort of hidden behind a wall so you would come across it in this sort of secret zone, this secret garden of shells. And you know, thinking about these magic earth archives, like Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, both of whom are British.
There’s a strong Druid, magical—
OK: You love the Brits.
PH: I can’t help it.
OK: He has a really funny British accent that he tries to pull off. It’s really bad.
PH: I’m not going to do it now.
OK: Try out—
PH: Andy Goldsworthy, pebbles broken and scraped. But I like that it’s not straight minimalism. It’s like magical minimalism. You know what I mean? Everybody’s days are rough enough. Let’s make it fun. So there’s like glowing liquid, it’s like burning different colored fire, like lava. It’s like alchemical wizard stuff. And it’s cool because you don’t know as a viewer what it’s made of. What is that? Is it lit from below? You get really close, you’re like, “No, it’s glowing. What is it?” It’s cool. And so like it’s secretly the most toxic stuff, and I had rashes for three weeks afterwards.
But it looks like magical ectoplasm. You’re like, “Is this like what life is made of? What is this?” Again, I like that sense what Mr. Rogers, this sort of magical childlike sense of wonder and giving that to the viewer. That’s the piece on the floor, glows kind of blue obviously. And these were paintings that were hung in a small gallery. These sort of collage shell pieces in various colors. It’s kind of like, again, collecting shells on the beach for your collection, being casual about it, and like just doodling on the painting and rubbing sand into it.
OK: Are you a hoarder at all?
PH: No, but I’m a collector. I like the idea of, you know, it’s fun to walk the beach and get stuff and glue it onto stuff. And then this is after I got to Chicago, I was like “I need to start painting stuff again,” but this was on silk, and I came at a point where I was in a transition in my life, so I didn’t know what to paint anymore. I was like, “I’ll just paint flowers.”
It’s a forever go-to, I’m sure it’ll be fine. And so I just started painting these flowers and started putting these weird chromosome patterns on top, sort of floating Matisse-y, leafblown chromosomes, and I wanted to make them super washy, super fresh, keep it fast, keep it luscious. This is big. This is about six feet tall. But like super breezy. That was important to me for some reason.
OK: And what triggered that transition? It was just that you moved? That you wanted to go back to the elements?
PH: Just like ADD. Because I can’t live off of just painting dots for the rest of my life. I need to like—I’m a kid that grew up drawing all the time. I like to draw stuff. And so I think I need to itch that impulse a little bit.
OK: So your days as an abstract minimalist artist are over?
PH: We’ll see. Never say never. These ones are sort of inspired by acid house posters and that color palette of yellow, black, and white, and that crazy smiley face they’d always use on their posters. So putting that in the flowers. This one is called Spectrum, a little bit of a rainbow there on one of the petals. Acid. And this one has the little butterfly with this lightning bolt in the wings. In making this show, I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s like the jellyfish becoming the moon. It’s like a butterfly becoming a storm. I was like, “Oh my God, that makes so much sense. It’s all here together.”
OK: But obviously you’re also thinking even from the titles like Forever, Acid, you’re thinking of this heightened state of euphoria that comes from drug culture, rave culture. I mean is that meant to be explicit in the work, or is it not?
PH: I think it’s pretty explicit. It’s like the power trio, like spirituality, drugs, and sex as these like well-worn avenues towards like leaving your body or towards the sublime. I’d say that is kind of the theme of everything that runs through my work in those. One of those three ways. So yeah, for sure. Other cowboy.
OK: I fell in love with this one. This one moved me.
PH: This one’s really small. It was actually part of a large painting that kind of got repurposed and restretched as a kind of fragment, but I think this is one of the more actually intimate more poignant ones. And some of them were just sort of like—this is a smaller one, an evening primrose which was an Illinois native flower, chromosomes almost choking it out, which was weird. But these chromosomes are like the state of absolute possibility.
Like they haven’t like melded together yet. They’re not going to make an embryo. It’s just like the cosmic goo of possibilities.
OK: It’s also the dematerialization or deconstruction of the body as like a—
PH: Yeah, into a million teeny microscopic components, like blowing it out. Or before it comes together. After or before like where in that cycle.
OK: So it’s like birth or death.
PH: It’s between birth and death I guess. Not to get too new-agey. But then I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. These are too pretty. I’m getting a cavity, I can’t do it.” So one day, I was like, “I’m doing it. I’m going to mark it up. I’m going to do it.” So this is the first one. But I put this in here because I don’t think it’s the best painting but it does sort of call back those fronts Franz Klines that I loved. I mean I had a Franz Kline poster as a kid. That’s how much I liked—I was like, “It’s so cool.” It’s not cool. It’s embarrassing.
OK: It’s bad.
PH: But it’s just us friends here, so I’ll let you know it’s fine. But you can see how it comes in here, like and this is a sort of nonsense Japanese character, these kind of stains or burns on the canvas, and I was like, “Yeah, that feels good, I like that, this is good.” So I started making these. Oh, this is a sort of comic book still that I came across from the same time, and this is supposed to be like Bacchus. He’s saying, “Welcome to the party at the end of the world,” which is again, so cheesy, but I like the idea of these flowers juxtaposed—these voids, and how like this kind of Bacchus end of the world vibe plays into that.
So here you have—this one is called Four Suns, and they kind of are arranged like dominoes or braille, and they’re kind of vibrating around back and forth.
OK: But that’s kind of when I got really interested because I felt like they were also heroin addicts, you know, holes—track marks. They were—
PH: Yeah, or holes in your brain.
OK: Holes in your brain, but they were also like when people talk about depression, they talk about this complete darkness that washes over you. You’ve taken something of beauty, and you’ve literally engulfed it and put it in darkness.
PH: Well my whole thing—what I realized was not that I was marring these with these darknesses, but I was more exposing the darkness. that was like already coexisting. And so I was kind of like having eyes on both sides of your head with these paintings, and like showing you both at once, which is normally impossible. If that makes sense. Here is one with these apples that I picked from near my studio. Obviously very charged symbolism in the apple of both fertility and forbidden fruit—ahhh!.
OK: So you’re always thinking in metaphor.
PH: Not on purpose, though. This is all kind of in retrospect.
But I do kind of like—as you’ll see, I do kind of like that it can operate on those levels. I think it’s a juicy extra. Here is a detail.
OK: So let’s move up a bit more quickly to your current show. This is context for the current show.
PH: Yeah, I wanted to go a little bit lighter, so I made these sort of huge sky paintings for the show in LA. I was like, “I just want to do a show that’s like—woooosh.” And that was the only grounds for the starting point. So I just made these huge skies, which I thought were like is it going to be the most upbeat, fun show, just like skies.
OK: That actually was quite depressing for you.
PH: People were like, “Wow, Paul, this show was really sad.” I was like, “What?” I was kind of like “I guess,” and people who really love my work and knew me well. So it was like, maybe you’re right.
OK: Just so depressing, the sky.
PH: They thought it was really depressing. I was like, “Okay.” Here is a sort of figure out in the sky that’s sort of androgynous posthuman angel guy at the bar.
OK: But you wanted it to be euphoric and utopic, but then people read it as sad.
PH: Yeah, like I wanted to be kind of like you’re like breathing in too much oxygen. So you’re kind of like, “Okay, yeah.”
OK: That can be really sad.
PH: Yeah, apparently.
OK: Hard for people physically, to do.
PH: Yeah, it’s hard in the long run. So then I also made this piece called I Am The Sky, which is kind of this—like I was kind of asking the viewer to imagine themselves as the sky, this impossible task to try and imagine. It was really small, kind of—I think I have a piece. It’s really small. But it’s kind of like a dare or invitation, and I made a little buddy. This one is wrapped in lining, so it becomes sort of wrapped like a ballet dancer. Skull, after El Greco.
OK: You skipped a couple slides of David Robilliard.
PH: Yeah, I just—
OK: Was he influential to you, or is that something that came later for our conversation?
PH: That’s something I saw a little bit later, but there is this tradition of these kind of queer text paintings, kind of humble and small, him and Paul Thek, which is the next one. And they’re just these kind of like nice reminders, I guess in a way, and I think that’s actually a really generous thing. I’m grateful for these artists to have done that. Here’s one. This is Compassion. Again, these dots you know. And then this painting was at a group show. This painting was called Painting of Magic. And the reason I’m showing this is because—
Like this is an important painting to me personally because it’s asking the viewer to imagine that this painting really is a painting of magic. It actually is sort of like sequined transparent material, but I’m like, “I want you to pretend.” And so it’s sort of a different kind of dare than the I Am the Sky piece.
OK: Let’s jump forward to—those were Eternal Youth.
PH: Yeah, this is a show that I did here in Chicago at Bar 4000 with some more of these glowing shell stuff. Here is a fish that can see upwards, also in the deep sea. And then—
OK: What was that image we skipped?
PH: This is a little video of that last show, but this is—so I wanted to inverse the black hole and make it sort of white orb pieces. This is like a large diptych, thinking about this like a still from Sleeping Beauty and the toxic apple.
And so I made these sort of radioactive blue apples for the show here. And I also like started filling up all the space around the objects, like every single micro-globe of space is somehow charged. Like there’s no such thing as empty space, and thinking about painters, like American painters like Charles Birch where everything is sort of throbbing with energy, and then you had these sort of almost violent energy orbs which were the ultimate manifestation of that idea just sort of floating there, haunting you.
Here is the cowboy again, like alone, drinking his water.
OK: But this one was displayed particularly uniquely in that you actually painted out the back of it white, and then you spot lit it in a very particular way in this kind of sequence, which it’s kind of a strange—I guess you have these two vortex paintings, and then you have this figure who is kind of—we’re not sure, is he begging, is he receiving some piss—
Is someone pissing in his hand? Is that ambiguity intentional? What about the theatricality of that as well? I’d love to hear more about that.
PH: Yes, so the theatricality is definitely on purpose. I’m one of those kids who grew up like I was in plays in high school, so that kind of formal set up is definitely in my bones. But as far as a cowboy painting, I wanted it to become this vessel the way the shells and ground—this frame is holding this, and both in a physical and conceptual way. It’s got these sort of sparkly orbs, and he’s sort of holding this water the way the painting is kind of like holding him. And he—the painting is transparent the way the water is transparent, and he’s kind of like—what is he doing? Is he looking for tadpoles? Is he like you said, receiving someone’s piss? Is he drinking water? It’s confusing.
OK: And I like that kind of ambiguity. The power structure, whether he’s in control of his own destiny or not, is something that is—that is pivoted on the viewer’s—what perception they want to bring to it.
PH: Exactly, exactly.
OK: And then there’s a soundtrack that’s in this space. Can you talk to that?
PH: Yeah, so I wrote this poem, and it’s read by my six-year-old nephew. Maybe he’s five actually. He’s almost six. And paired with a kind of nature-y soundtrack, a mechanical drone sound, and also these sort of ambient ‘90s rave snippets, and he’s sort of talking about how he created this world sort of like this little kid talking about building something as if he’s a god or as if he’s an artist. And so this sort of ambiguous, kind of spooky, kind of optimistic soundscape while you’re looking at these paintings.
OK: And then what’s the blanket?
PH: The blanket. So the blanket is a bed, it’s a comforter, and so I like the—I always like this idea of taking these humble household objects and blowing them into these sort of cosmic, sublime things. So this ten foot by ten foot comforter that looks like it belongs in a spaceship, and this silver that is sort of suggesting these cosmic waves of infinity traveling through space.
OK: And this one you’d mentioned is very much a kind of Disney-inspired, this apple painting.
PH: Yeah, absolutely. I just like the idea the cartoon is a language we all can speak and allows people to sort of enter the conversation without being intimidated. You know what I mean? Anybody can look at cartoons and be like, “Oh yeah, it’s an apple. Cool.” And then next these brooms, which is obviously a continuation of the chairs, a rethinking of the chairs. These sort of subjective models of universes, everyone in their own universe or making their own universe.
OK: And are they brooms because you love cleaning?
PH: I do love cleaning, but they’re brooms because the broom is like the most humble object there is. Like I also conflate with this idea of this like Midwest angst, this cleanliness and work is godliness, and they become worn by the body. They become stand-ins and traces of the body, and so a lot of these brooms are used by my extended family or people we know. So they’re kind of meaningful in that way, too. There’s little shells put on in case you can’t tell. These burnt brooms. And these paintings. 10,000 Years.
Just asking the viewer to imagine this expanse of time or become the expanse of time. Every Day Is Halloween again, just sort of reminding you of the importance of reimagining yourself and your environment every day.
OK: And that’s also a song by Ministry.
PH: Yeah, which is sort of about kind of like it was designed to be a freak anthem, like “We can do whatever we want, whenever we want. People look at us weird, but it’s who we are.” It’s a great song. And then these chromosomes again show up, and you can’t tell but—within the blackness is the night sky. And then lastly, it’s the video I made the other day. I just made this for Instagram, but I like the idea of Instagram becoming this very casual place to make artistic sketches of different kinds if that makes sense. But I also like the idea that this sort of shows how the work can become theatrical.
OK: I don’t know. I didn’t watch that. I didn’t see that.
PH: You hadn’t seen that?
OK: I’m really confused. I’m so confused right now.
PH: It’s just a weird—I just like the idea that you can now use like YouTube and the internet to make these weird collages. I don’t know, it’s just fun, kind of like high school theater, like these like Disney monks who have got this sort of celestial bubble space, it’s like morphing through time. It’s cheesy early ‘90s trance music. You know what I mean?
OK: But one thing that brings me to, my last question before I open up to you guys to ask whatever you’d like to say—ask of Paul is you know, you obviously are really using the space of social media and the web as a resource for mining thinking. But your practice is, I’m not going to say traditional, but your practice is, as I mentioned before, weighted by this historical tradition of painting. How are you negotiating those spaces? How do you think about those things? How are those experiences for you? Going between those two spaces.
PH: I just think that more than half of the images are what we see day to day is from social media, so that’s going to be a source of subject matter no matter what. But I’m a painter, so I’m not going to paint pictures of my phone or something, you know what I mean? But these kind of images inevitably end up in my paintings.
This will probably become a series of paintings of some kind. This is not like a finished piece and be like, “Paul makes these video collages for Instagram. That’s what he does.” But I want to show you guys this is one of my ways of sort of like playing around at home or in the studio as sort of fodder down the line. I don’t know what will happen with this one, but yeah, the show I did here, that a lot comes from stuff that I’ve seen online. Online research and looking at old clips of like dance parties and Disney movies and witches and stuff. It’s just like a research tool, and it’s a place where all of us live half the time.
OK: Do you do that late at night?
PH: Yeah, just late at night, on the couch. I should be brushing my teeth, you know what I mean.
OK: So you don’t brush your teeth at night?
PH: I do. I do.
OK: Good. So who has questions for Paul or anything to say? We have a mic here that’s roving. We’ve got one up there.
Audience: Hi, so I was interested in some of the language you used to talk about your work, words like “fun” and “euphoria” and talking about art as entertainment. We have this sort of long tradition that argues that art should be the opposite of those things coming from Adorno, Horkheimer, that there should be kind of this Duchampian shock that happens and that this is what art should—art should be trying to provoke in an audience. And Adorno, Horkheimer, are old and dead, but I think this is a problem that kind of continues within art and art history. So you think about people like Claire Bishop at CUNY who is an art historian who critiques the practices of those like Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija that oh, they kind of introduce these pleasant spaces and people hang out and they like it because they like talking to their friends and eating Thai food, whereas Bishop is trying to argue we should be looking more towards artists like Santiago Sierra, others who kind of have more confrontational practices that are more reminiscent of the historical avant-garde. So I was just being interested in hearing thoughts about that. You kind of addressed it a little bit at the beginning when you were talking about these works you saw as a child that were very impactful for you, but also very kind of frightening, producing precisely the sort of response these people like Bishop and Horkheimer and company would want. Yeah, so I’m kind of interested in how you see those sort of negative influences coming in, or why you’ve chosen to go different ways.
PH: I think to be honest it actually is a direct reaction against people like Rirkrit and Liam because those were my teachers when I was in grad school. And I remember just thinking to myself—no offense to them, they’re great people, but I was like, “What are you talking about” They’re like, “We’re making this relational aesthetic space where people come together.” I’m like this is an awning made of stainless steel that hangs in a museum that costs $30 to get into. You’re not creating a space at all, even like a propositional or conceptual space.
And quite honestly, I talked about how in grad school I was overwhelmed by the endless possibilities that painting provided, but I was also very angry because a lot of the stuff that we were reading was high philosophy of the moment, and didn’t really have a bearing on the way people actually lived their lives. And like I don’t believe that I can make a direct difference in a political way, like, “I’m going to make this painting, and I’m going to change Donald Trump’s mind.” I don’t believe in that, but I do believe there is a real fertile ground for opportunity to sort of like remind the general public of things.
Or soften them or do certain things. And I actually really do like the work of Santiago Sierra, and the Kiki Smith piece that haunted me. I think that is a very legitimate way to make work. It’s just not my personality. And so, given that, the question is what do you want to do. I’m like here at the museum, a lot of people who come here, they didn’t go to grad school. They don’t have a PhD. They don’t know what relational aesthetics is, you know what I mean? So I do think a lot about what is the viewer—how do I be generous to the viewer? And that’s my job.
And also, I will say that I think a lot of the meaning of the production of the artwork lies—and I’m like—lies less in me as like singular subjective figure making this object for the market of ideas, and more in the in-between space between me like as the object and the viewer.
Like what happens between the viewer and the object. That’s what interests me the most. So that’s a space that I want to occupy, and if I just—if they have no way in, I think it’s a wasted opportunity. And so that’s why a lot of the language of cartoons or the likability, the material likability of the yummy silver fabric is a way to sort of draw you in and try to open up the space to a more subconscious level, if that makes sense.
OK: Any other questions … here?
Audience: Hi. I was wondering if you could speak to the chromosomes and the like when they begin to emerge in the work as sort of figures. To me, I feel like there’s some thread in the snow pieces you’re talking about. It was the one diptych that you’re referring to as a yin yang and the masculine-feminine energy. And I’m curious can you talk about the thread from those snow paintings and flurries of snow to flurries of chromosomes and kind of these like signifiers for potential embodied gender that haven’t come to place like existing as flurries over landscapes and standing in the sky, like in happening spaces of the night, but then like resolve. Yeah, can you paint that thread a little more freely? Like when did you become interested in those chromosomes and what are they doing for you I guess?
PH: Yeah, I would say that like I have sort of a natural—I’m naturally drawn to this formal setup of little teeny floaty things. Like I just like that on some kind of weird innate level. I just like it. It’s like Christmas lights, little bubbles. I just like that stuff. But I also think in a way as a model or as a metaphor or even in a more cosmically literal way, they’re all the same thing. They become these million points of light just because you see it in so many places. It’s like the stars, the bubbles, the snow, the cells. It’s everywhere. So I’m interested in why is it everywhere and let’s look at that and bring it closer. And that’s sort of one to apply directly onto these chromosomes and remind people that’s everywhere too, and it’s even inside the chromosomes and we have little dots. Like I said before, it’s like making a painting of like everybody or a painting of everything, and within that is inherent this possibility that anything could happen because this painting contains everything, if that makes sense. And like, I like to sort of cheekily use the chromosomes like XX or XY to say like there’s still within that a possibility for anything. It is like a swirl, it is like a universe in and of itself if that makes sense.
OK: Okay, so we’ve been here an hour and like we’re getting tired. So I want the last question, and I want this last question to be amazing. So the pressure is on you to come up with this amazing—Mickey, are you going to go for it? Let’s go for this.
PH: Good luck, Mickey.
Audience: So you once told me that Kiki Smith asked you, “What gives you the right to paint?” Given this whole conversation here, what answer would you give her now?
PH: It was actually Kara Walker, which makes the question a lot scarier and a lot more complicated. And that was ten years ago, almost, that she asked me that, and I would—nothing gives me the right to paint. Her question was what makes you—what gives you, as a white male artist, the right to make paintings? And the answer is nothing. The answer is that it’s a human thing to do, and so given the privilege and opportunity that they get to do this with, just don’t waste it. I think that’s my answer. Nothing, but just don’t waste it.
OK: Don’t waste it. Thank you all so much.
PH: Thank you.
OK: Thank you, Paul. You’re amazing. It’s been a wonderful pleasure to talk to you this evening. We recorded this, which means you can tell your friends that this will be available somewhere at some point to engage with, and people can laugh at our jokes again and again. And thank you to our public programs team for organizing this event. And yeah, please, if you haven’t seen the show, go upstairs to the third floor and see it. We also recently opened, if you like painting, that we also recently opened—Howardena Pindell show on the fourth floor which is a kind of painting, some of it. It’s a kind of painting, and the museum is open until 9 PM, good night, good bye, go drink something. Have fun.
- Chicago Works:Paul Heyer–
- Short Five glowing white orbs seem to float above branches against a deep blue background.
- Long In this vertical painting, the background consists of a rich, saturated blue mottled with areas of both lighter and darker blue. Extending vertically across the background are three thin, dark brown branches. From these branches sprout small leaves of various reds, blues, pinks, and purples. The branches also bear three ghostly, translucent apples distinguished from the background only by white outlines. The most dominant element of the painting are five large white orbs, each with a faintly translucent white glow. Three of the orbs are aligned vertically on the left half of the painting, while the other two are arranged vertically starting at the upper-right hand corner. This leaves the background of the bottom right corner fully exposed.