Notes of Persistent Awe
Columns by Benjamin Terrell
Benjamin T. Heiken: New Works at One Wall Gallery
by Benjamin Terrell
2022, paint and jute, approximately 5" x 7"
After salt I crave sweet, after sweet I want salt, and for our eye it is the same. Here both tastes are pleased by the rest of the rainbow that continues beneath the surface of the earth to complete a furnace fed full color circle. This is what would be found on the factory floor if Detroit was famous for crayons and not cars. A miniature claymation Anselm Kiefer with a burgundy centered ectoplasmic ascent. A brilliant little license plate necessary for proceeding on any motorway of transformative elevation.
"Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird, just to remind myself I'll never fly."
- The Handsome Family
To me, most paintings are like horses; noble, mythical, and majestic, but a Benjamin T Heiken painting is more akin to a small bird or an exotic fish. Not just because of similar compact sizes (most Heikens' are no larger than a portable cassette player or a vintage paperback) but because they, too, belong to worlds parallel to ours, separate somehow, like the bird above and the fish below. Horses (and paintings that are like horses) are meant to be ridden -- they promise quests, visual directionality, and sunsets of resolve best enjoyed while riding off into them. Sadly, humans, like most horses, are inevitably tamed by the same imagination that coincidentally also offers an exit out of the stable of the mind. Birds and fish, however, remain more elusive and mysterious and there is grace to the chase of even naming them or understanding how our same surroundings offer such an incomprehensible other set of rules. Also, although not quite feathers or scales, works by Heiken often have appendages of cut cloth and frayed painted parts, like extra puzzle pieces found after something is solved that add additional dimensionality beyond the picture plane.
To encounter a work by Heiken is to imagine if painter Howard Hodgkin went not to India but to the hardware store. India is for horses and opulent royal riders, but the hardware store is for resolve, creative engineering and the kind of dialogue read in a Raymond Carver short story. Think not of Carver's melancholy but his wood shop economy, the poetry of simple things going humanly awry, and how heavy hands can wring out the most fragile forms of hope. Resolution is often offered in art, but not always in real life but it is found in a painting by Heiken. Hodgkin and Heiken also intersect in an appreciation of the miniature as a reliquary for the tangible -- Hodgkin's love of Persian paintings and Heiken's own work like little lifeboats of jute and glue washing up on optimistic shores after nights of an amnesia that is specifically American. Another writer, Philip Levine, sums up our perpetual homecoming, "Let me go back to the land after a lifetime of going nowhere. This time lodged in the feathers of some scavenging gull white above the black ship that docks and broods upon the oily waters of your harbor."
Why parcel paragraphs and endeavor to describe non-objective painting where an artist has so successfully done away with words? See this essay as the newsprint that covers the kitchen floor where a canine births its litter. This act is an attempt to get beyond words, to be born again and live in the nameless spell briefly available before the limitations of explanation. The following are preliminary ideas for engaging in Heiken's work -- One, a painting doesn't have to describe anything and can still be reminiscent of something universal or specific. Two, a painting can be about how it is made rather than what it portrays. Three, a painting free of representation can transcend the picture plane. After a recent conversation about Heiken, fellow painter David Schell had the following to add, "A good painter is often the one that is most deeply connected with their temperament and impulses. For many, that means sidestepping traditional techniques and walking a path that involves developing a new, personal, sometimes idiosyncratic way of making things."
Pulling into the rail-yard of the Portland train station, passengers are confronted by an excess of trash, broken household items, and other odd things that are separated from their original purposes. Outdoor and indoor ousted and inverted, like the contents of an apartment complex shaken free of everything disposable. These are the souvenirs of life as it often falls apart and when seen in stillness, alongside the train's movement and momentum, they take on a greater sense of grand frailty. One may wonder, like looking at a painting by Heiken, is this the chaos of disorder and the poetry of reorder or the poetry of disorder and the chaos of us resisting order? Heiken's iconography is made from the most important and basic elements of an artist's studio -- jute, staples, painter's rag, glue, sand, and paint laid out as if directly on the palate or right out of the tube. As if the painter knows, the rawness prior to the concept is, like the poet's partially blank page, the place to hold on longest to the most ungraspable of human experience.
The philosopher Simone Weil wrote that underneath the vulnerability of our body, of our soul, and of our social standing, "illusion is our very substance." The artist is then an illusion creating illusions that can live long past their creators. Some of an artist's first complete worlds were painted in miniature and made for illuminated manuscripts and perhaps living among a nest of words was an embryo of the modern painting. A small nonobjective painting by Heiken appears as if birthed by silence and is then an illumination without the manuscript. Without the weight of representation and a story, shackles fall, and the phantom is set free, without a story we return feeling and first description to its earliest utterance and incantation. It feels like a Heiken could be to contemporary painting what the string and two cups are to an iPhone -- a poetic precursor, an echo emanating from a place of mysterious and fundamental resolution, a necessity first felt, long before it is known.
Discussing Jung's Red Book, translator Sonu Shamdasani suggests that our lives are dependent on finding out our ancestors' unanswered questions. We think dreams are a result of us but we are actually a result of them and those who came before us live on and are present in our imagery. According to Shamdasani, we are at an epoch where our absent elders outnumber those of us still living and the weight of history is the urgency for resolve, "Certain figures come out more prominently, differentiate themselves from the stream . . ." Once I saw a peacock between a pond and a parking lot where everything else was grey except for the otherworldly turquoise of the bird's feathers. Keeping its opulent tail in repose, the bird had a graceful gait across the gravel path and it reminded me of the first Benjamin Heiken painting I saw in person.
If amber and earth as colors exist in nature to signal shedding, to what great season does this odd topography belong?
Created as if for appreciating the act of being appreciated, it arrives unexpected, pleasing a part of you perhaps you've never met.
In its monumental intimacy it is the cup that can contain the ocean, yet spills over from a handful of creative choices.
How is it something that seems to have given birth to itself also appears to have always existed?
Like we, who unwittingly recreate ourselves based on the strengths and weaknesses of those who came before us.
We, who pull off the siding of our own ships in the deepest of waters or in the earliest acts of sailing.
We, who in being human are both anchors and oars, but, lost in the sea of our creativity
we are also closest to the freedom of fish and fowl.
Benjamin T. Heiken's work will be on display at One Wall Gallery in Eugene, OR through November 30, 2022 (@one.wall.gallery on instagram)
Heiken recently showed at 57W57ARTS (@57w57arts on instagram) in NYC and La Grange Gallery (@la_grange_gallery on instagram) in Cernay-Lès-Reims, France.
You can see more of his work on instagram @benjamin.t.heiken.
Paint, Cardboard, Jute
2022, paint, cardboard and jute, 6 1/2" x 5 1/4"
Paint, Cardboard, Staples, Jute
2022, paint, cardboard, staples and jute, 9" x 5.5"
2022, paint and jute, 7" x 4 1/2"
Paint, Cardboard, Jute
2022, paint, cardboard and jute, 4" x 7 1/2"
Paint, Cardboard, Jute
2022, paint, cardboard and jute, 6" x 4"
Paint, Cardboard, Staples, Jute
2022, paint, cardboard, staples and jute, 8" x 5 1/2"
Howard Hodgkin (at The National Gallery in Washington, DC)
1980-84, oil on wood