507 West 24th Street
In Keep Out, Jay Heikes’ new exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery, the Minneapolis-based artist displays his large-scale copper installations that consist of wire, iron, steel, and wax, as well as a selection of paintings and multimedia works. Heikes explores the physical and perceptual barriers inspired by today’s social and political landscape through his installations that guide the viewer around the space with their abstract angles and forms. Yasemin Vargi interviewed Jay Heikes about his recent body of work.
Y.V: One of the sources you drew inspiration from is the Danish director Lars Von Trier. His Dogma 95 Manifesto was based on keeping the traditional values in film and excluding new technologies. How has this manifesto influenced your work?
J.Y: It is interesting at this moment, because Frank Stella is installing next door and it is full of incredible works that have so much to do with machines and their precision, and obviously those machines are an extension of his hand, but in my work I try to keep the hand in the scale of what you can mold with your hand in the work.
My Minneapolis studio is very small so it has always been about what wire I can bend with my hands instead of what tool can bend it for me, although I’m not against using automation. I usually try and keep that relationship with the body or “one body”.
Lars Von Trier and those directors use natural light and follow some of these constraints and rules they set up based on their traditional values; I was always attracted to that. Specifically, he made a very strange film called Five Obstructions where he made impossible rules for another Danish director called Jørgen Leth to follow certain rules and remake his older film. Every scene was a challenge with presented physical obstacles. I always was attracted to the idea of obstacle; presenting myself obstacles and working with them always intrigued me. For example, what interests me with Peruvian textiles is weaving of the hand as an obstacle, starting with the material then using the periodic table as a turning point; my art has always been about that.
Y.V: Your works seem to depict materiality in terms of the way they are chemically transformed. In a previous article you talk about going back to basics in art making, questioning if the artist and the viewer are really understanding the materials being used. Is there a connection between this notion and your work?
J.H: I think I trick myself into thinking that there are materials, and then there is a return to nature. Everything is an extension of that natural world, even the most artificial things and chemicals. There is such a distance now between what we know of the material and what it is made up of. So when we see an object, it just seems as a whole. I use the example of a lamp; we never think about the copper that’s in the wire to feed the electricity or the steel that is used.
We don’t think about excavation of core materials. We live in a strange society where materials are constantly extracted and brought into new environments. It is almost about the detachment of materials from the earth to the modern room or the magic in terms of domestic spaces. There is a feeling you get when you walk into a room that is about denial and detachment of where the original materials of those objects come from. I want to emphasize where those materials come from into that modern grid.
Y.V: What is the creative process behind your sculptures? Do you begin with choosing the materials?
J.H: I usually start with the material and then I think about it in a tangential way. I always go back to the history of that material which is about its purpose or origin. I start to research the history of that material and I go into what can I do with it. I think about what is special about it. I used, for example, a material called Murex in a previous work. Murex is a liquid extracted from a shellfish gland which then oxides and turns from yellow to purple. Back in the ancient times, it signified royalty because that material was so hard to extract and use. Now it is just a color, but how difficult it was to bring the color into being is important. That is the kind of process I have with the materials: whether it is a dust or rock, I research the history of the material. Then I start to think about what is special about the material like with the copper I used for my sculptural installations in this show. Copper is such a soft metal that and can curve in a way that it is always on a verge of falling apart or bending. When I make sculptures, I have to use them like spiders; they have to have legs to give support. I try to listen to the materials and let them tell me where to go.
Y.V: The copper installations in this exhibition are extensions of your ink and pencil drawing compositions called “Music for Minor Planets” (2013). How did you blend these two different disciplines together to tell a story?
J.H: The Music for Minor Planets drawings came out of trying to devise tools that were renegotiating the work I was making back then. The drawings ended up being much more lyrical than the abstract tools I was making without function. Except one tool I made that turned out to create flowing line drawings, which curve in a way that my hand couldn’t. The materiality and the delicateness of the pencil shows the way music floats; sounds become like musical sculptures curving in space. I also like the idea of how they look like seismographs; the way we record the earth’s movements, or lie detectors that convert your emotions into drawings.
When I looked at those drawings from a macro point of view, I came up with bigger cosmological radiation of questions regarding the space and forms, like the fabric of the time. Then I started to think about music and working with that stanza or specifically sheet music thinking about the way we measure notes and how thoughts become form. I also made me think at what point they become moldable.
Y.V: You mentioned earlier that Peruvian textiles were an inspirational source for some of your works, for example the “Death Spiral” installation. What intrigued you about it?
J.H: Specifically the Inka-khipu which is a knot system devised in what archeologists believe to be the first sculptural language or binary record keeping device. It still mystifies me how the basic functions of a computer and our society can be tied back to these braided, cotton objects. They are at once 'basic' with a consistent, formal rule of knots and completely mysterious, as sometimes it has been noted that they have been 'corrected' or changed to indicate a rift in an event or time. This is what I find inspirational or compelling, that knots in cotton could reflect time, possibly how I hope these works will be read as frameworks for thought and sound, representing the path a thought takes, how moldable it is at one point and then how it hardens over time gaining a certain weight.
Y.V: The exhibition is titled “Keep Out" and it touches on the politically and socially constructed boundaries. How are you reflecting these arising issues in your new works?
J.H: The works in the exhibition were made during the elections. On the inauguration day, I was in Texas for two months. I came across a lot of abandoned buildings and landscapes with keep out signs in Marfa. There seemed to be a sense that America wanting to keep people away and keep people out. I witnessed a move towards native isolation. I was paralleling that with the way some artists work in their studio. I, for example, worked for so many years in a studio. In that case you become an anti-social animal that goes really deep into your own thoughts. I thought it was weird the way the outside world was starting to mimic the internal world of a studio artist. I find all this talk about fences, walls, walling off and derailing this global project of the last thirty years jarring as most people do. I think this makes its way into my work not in a topical way, but it’s just there hovering in the form of wreckage in a lot of my sculptures. I think it comes from trying to exorcise those barriers and tear them down internally to reach the outside world and come to terms with what is going on with all these current events.
Y.V: You combine your wall series “Z” (2016) that references sleeping along with your sculptural work. What kind of a dialogue are you presenting to the viewer?
J.H: The way I understand sleep is that I shut the lights off and go to this other space where the rules don’t apply and I can do horrific or magical things. When I am awake, I am put back into another space that has structure and rules. At first it was the opaqueness of that dream state. It was so deep and dark it was hard to see through and move past. The Z represents the end of language. I think that every artist is put up against how to create a new language. There are three Z paintings in the show. Using the Z was a way for me to start at the end to see if I could go beyond where I set up a boundary and try to move through it. I realized that if you look at the gallery as an internal space where you are putting meditative thoughts, the world outside the gallery is visible somehow. I am using these paintings as windows to the world. Making those boarded up windows in the shape of boards people put against the window in Z formation. I put them in the space and I was thinking with the idea that we are constantly confronting ourselves with the idea of boarding up a space and you cannot see what is on the other side. We then start to pay attention to the cracks in the wood and try to see the landscape through it. I made two paintings about the idea of seeing landscapes outside the gallery through the boarded up windows. I think it’s the moment where through a revelation I realized that as stormy as it is outside, I need to pay more attention to the cracks on the boards to see and imagine the outside world.
The exhibition runs through June 17, 2017.