There are as many ways to look at the landscape as there are artists who choose to paint it. For some, the natural world is point of departure for explorations of color and light. Other artists, particularly in recent times, have chosen to depict the natural world as threatened by human activities. Seattle painter Juliana Heyne, now showing at Francine Seders Gallery in Phinney Ridge, chooses a different route. Her unconventional compositions are the record of her very subjective responses to her wide-ranging travels, and the resulting pictures strike out in several directions at once. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us now with his thoughts on the work of this intriguing painter.
In times past, drawing was seen as the art of line and shape, painting that of tone and color. Hopelessly out of date as these distinctions now are, they are still a useful starting point in discussing the work of artist Juliana Heyne. The basic building block of her current show is the scribble, a painted mark that conventionally belongs more to the world of line and ink, than to that of paint and brush.
For Heyne, the scribble, with its wiry, contorted structure and random quality, is an ideal way to express tactility and texture. As it happens, the gritty textures of the natural world are a central preoccupation of her current work. Clouds of scribbles, along with loops, curlicues and waves, are used to depict exposed bedrock, expanses of grass and foliage, and the rippled surface of small ponds and streams. Though the materials used in the current exhibit include a variety of media, including pastel, charcoal, oil paint, oil stick, and monoprint, Heyne’s approach is basically similar throughout.
Heyne seeks out natural subject matter where her graphic language can be used to greatest effect, and perhaps as a result there are few, if any, smooth surfaces or simple passages in these works. The sky itself barely makes an appearance, and though the paintings are nominally realistic, basic building blocks of conventional realism like cast shadows and form-building tonality are mostly absent, replaced by a flat, overall light which gives even weight to details both near and far.
All three of the locations that Heyne depicts in the exhibit are places where the rock layers that underlie the living earth are stripped of their cover and lie exposed, by a process either manmade (Minnesota) or natural (Eastern Washington and Utah). It’s clearly the landforms and not the origins that interest Heyne, since her treatment makes no distinction between the colossal Minnesota strip mine ripped open by man and machines, and those areas exposed over the ages by wind and water. It’s only with effort that we can recognize the tracks across the moonscape of her Iron Range paintings as dirt roads, and no vehicles — or people — appear at any point.
I couldn’t help but think of medical illustrations as I looked over these images, especially some of the paintings of Southern Utah. Two of the pictures in particular — views looking down into twisting canyons with tiny scraps of grass and trees here and there — appear on first glance like cutaway drawings of the body seen in cross-section, complete with whitish cell walls, ruddy-colored muscle layers, narrow blood vessels, and wrinkled, folded skin. The eye is everywhere assaulted with outlined, convoluted shapes and surfaces filling the image from edge to edge, and it’s almost impossible to tell if the scene is a close-up (which it is not), or a panorama, which it turns out to be.
I happened to find one of these Utah views photographed from precisely the same location as that chosen by Heyne for her painting, and the comparison was instructive. Heyne, it turns out, has been very faithful to the actual outlines of the scene, but very loose and inventive within those general boundaries. Heyne chooses to break up the molded, multi-colored sandstone so favored by Georgia O’Keeffe (who painted similar rock formations, elsewhere in the region) into a patchwork of shingles, ovals, wrinkles, and crevices, favoring complexity over unity, and thereby, very unlike O’Keeffe, obscuring the larger forms. And whereas O’Keeffe’s Southwest landscapes are classically arranged, their monumental shapes streamlined and perfected, those of Heyne are contorted and conflicted, as though still under construction, a work in progress, or an map of the emotions. Heyne’s drawing — very unlike that of the polished O’Keefe — can be slightly awkward, almost at times naïve, and her colors are raw and fleshy, with the occasional appearance of a early spring green, a welcome ingredient that provides some of the most luminous interludes in these rugged, earth-bound works.
With Heyne’s fascination with texture and her relative disinterest in structure and scale, it’s not surprising that some of her works have almost no pictorial space at all. The oil stick on paper work entitled “Coulee Spring #4” is nearly impossible to read as an actual place. Filling the entire image is a barren, Eastern Washington cliff, painted in muted, nearly monochromatic earth colors interrupted here and there by narrow horizontal green bands. The green strips are the only calm areas in the picture, the rest of which is dominated by a jumble of contorted rock textures, the sort of active, overall surface beloved of the abstract expressionists, whose decorative sensibility Heyne’s clearly shares, and whose energy — and flatness — she is happy to employ.
For me the most satisfying pictures in the exhibit are those where the graphic activity is subordinated to a dominant overall design. In the monoprint Escalante #3, for example, a dark chocolate-colored stream cuts towards us through a soft pink and yellow meadow, with fiery red shrubs and a custard hill beyond. The meadow texture teems with hooks and scrawls, but they are muted in overall tone, lively but not overwhelming.
Even more subdued are the large areas of rock surface in the signature image of the show, the lyrical Coulee Spring #1. Here, for nearly the only time, Heyne uses dramatic chiaroscuro rather than shape and texture to organize her image. A body of water lies at the base of a dark volcanic cliff, with a park-like setting in the foreground. The selective sunlight casts the entire rock face into a purple shadow except for a patch of yellow-green grass, the better to set off the brilliant foreground, most especially a glowing salmon-pink hillside, the single brightest patch of color in the show.
Like many artists, Juliana Heyne approaches her subject matter with more than one goal in mind, seeking both to depict and to express; to record her location, but also to transform it — using a very personal, idiosyncratic language. One feels in these pictures the push and pull of competing sensibilities, and the fact that some pictures are more successful than others comes with the territory. Georgia O’Keefe is an example of an artist who early arrived at an approach to her art that remained consistent throughout her career. Heyne, on the other hand, is an example of a seeker, someone for who the search for the right way to express her subject matter is a worthy end in itself.