interview: Andrea Joyce Heimer
Andrea Joyce Heimer creates geometric, collage-like paintings that depict humans acting like animals and animals acting like wild beasts. Although her scenes take place in domestic settings, they present an untamed world where social and sexual interaction is ruled by primitive behavioral codes. Her paintings are striking and unnerving, with long titles that hint at narratives that exist beyond the image. We spoke with Heimer shortly after her exhibit at Seattle’s Linda Hodges Gallery in May, one in a series of shows she has booked around the globe. She spoke with us about her upbringing as an adopted child, her thoughts on being an “outsider artist,” and the motivation behind those really long titles.
You’ve had a busy year, with exhibitions in LA, Oakland, Seattle, the UK, and upcoming shows in NY and Chicago. Have you been setting all these shows up yourself, or have folks been contacting you?
AJH: I have relationships with a wonderful group of gallerists who I feel lucky to work with, and they typically touch base when they have something in mind. New people reach out pretty frequently as well, which makes for a nice mix of working within established relationships and forging new ones.
When did you first begin painting, and how old are you now?
AJH: I attempted to teach myself to paint starting in my mid-20s, but did not consider it as a serious endeavor until quite a bit later. I’m 35 now.
It is my understanding that you were adopted. Can you tell us about your life, growing up, and how your childhood has influenced your work?
AJH: I was adopted as an infant into a family who already had one biological daughter. In those days closed adoptions were the norm, meaning the records of my birth parents were sealed. I was provided a piece of paper with a scant family medical history and absolutely zero identifying facts. I wasn’t told that I was adopted until I was well into elementary school, but even before that I felt disconnected from my adopted family. Certainly no one mistreated me, and though it was awkward to discuss, my mother said she would help me search out my biological parents someday if I ever wanted to do so. The feeling of not belonging was more instinctual than anything else. It was a persistent restless feeling that made me feel like a helium balloon at the end of a long string, listlessly bouncing against the ceiling. This feeling had an impact on future relationships and has definitely informed my work. Some of the main themes of my narratives include loneliness, disconnection, fear of abandonment, and an outsider-looking-in perspective.
You said that you attempted to teach yourself to paint. Have you ever taken an art class?
AJH: I am largely self-taught. I have always been attracted to art, painting in particular, but I have not had anything in the way of formal training past high school. I am now in the process of finishing an MFA in visual arts but the program very much emphasizes strengthening your current studio practice and exploring critical theory, which is ideal for someone like me who already has an established painting style. I was fortunate to have been admitted to this MFA program based on my portfolio and professional practice, so the BFA requirement was waived.
You have a very distinct style, presenting a miniaturist’s detail and juxtaposing different patterns which, combined with the flattening of perspective, create something akin to a collage. How did you develop this approach?
AJH: When I first had an inkling that I wanted to make narrative paintings, I was convinced I needed to learn how to render forms in a photorealistic manner. The stories I wanted to share were often strange and mystical, and I thought that, in order for any viewer to take them seriously, the work needed to be beautifully and classically rendered. Well, live and learn. I tried very hard to teach myself how to paint what I thought at the time was correctly (with oils, of course) and ended up discouraged and frustrated. At a loss, I later chose to go with my instincts and focus on story over form. I painted with an almost childlike sense of rebellion against perfection. I rendered things flat because I didn’t know how to create perspective; I painted in miniature because I had always collected dollhouse miniatures and because their scale made me feel powerful; I used patterning because I could use it to tell multiple stories within the same painting, and because it felt right. I have since learned to trust my gut on creative endeavors; I make every attempt to look inward rather than outward.
You and your family used to paint little ceramic objects called “Softies.” Can you tell us about them? What role did that play in your artistic development?
AJH: During my childhood, I definitely felt alienated more than I felt connected to my family, but there were moments when I was able to relax into the situation and feel less restless—almost like I could finally pause and take a breath and feel like I belonged. One of those instances was when my mother and grandmother would paint their ceramics. My grandmother lived alone in the mountains of Montana, and we would drive to see her for holidays. She had a one-room cabin with a kiln, and one of her favorite pastimes was to purchase greenware in all manner of shapes–figurines, canisters, decorative platters–and paint and fire it. She and my mom and I spent many snowy days painting little snowmen and cookie jars, and those times were simply golden to me. For whatever reason, Softies were one of the greenware items they frequently purchased. Softies were meant to be tabletop decorations; they were figurines of various animals molded to look as though they had seams and stuffing, meant to look like plush dolls. When we painted them, my mother and grandmother stressed the importance of making the surface look like fabric, and they showed me how to use tiny brushes to paint repeating patterns. The results really did look like fabric, and the hard ceramic surface appeared soft and plush. I remember being thrilled with the illusion. I also remember the repetitive act of creating patterns being meditative, which is one of the main reasons I use so much of it in my work to this day.
Are any other members of your family artists, or show an interest in the arts?
AJH: Not in particular, though my mother and late grandmother were quite crafty. They both painted pre-made ceramics, crocheted blankets, and re-upholstered furniture.
You showed at the Outsider Art Fair in New York earlier this year, and the most obvious reference I can think of to your work is that of famed outsider artist Henry Darger. Are the similarities coincident or deliberate?
AJH: The similarities are coincidental, but I’m happy to be included in Darger’s company. I think our work shares many similarities, i.e., some of the use of flattened perspective and fantastical elements, but there are fundamental differences, too. It is my understanding that Darger’s narratives surrounding the Vivian Girls et al. were almost entirely fictional. His work was not autobiographical in the traditional sense, though he may have been subconsciously working through some issues he had projected onto the various characters. In my case, the work is very much autobiographical, and I am openly working through issues surrounding my adoption, feelings of familial disconnect, and, in a sense, creating my own origin story where there was previously a void. I do think both of our bodies of work speak to a sense of profound loneliness, and that is perhaps the strongest link between our respective practices.
Would you consider yourself an “outsider artist”? How do you feel about that term?
AJH: I feel that the term “outsider artist” is problematic in many ways. There are so many more accurate and effective ways to describe an artist. I am aware that, in general, the term refers to an untrained person making art who operates entirely outside the art world. But what does that really mean? To me, the distinction of what “circle” an artist belongs to (art world insider, wild card outsider, etc.) is often the least identifying thing about the work. It’s a bit like describing someone as a “Black artist.” I know some of the intended connotations of the phrase, but it isn’t necessarily very accurate or informative. I think the term “outsider artist” has become shorthand for some art dealers to describe makers who suffer from mental illness or lack a basic [art] education, creators of their own ideologies, or any artist who works in relative solitude then passes away, leaving a lifetime of work ripe for the picking—or a combination of these. The term is outdated.
Regarding my own affiliation with the phrase, I don’t feel it’s accurate. I preferred “self taught” for a time, as it was at least more descriptive, however even that is not necessarily true anymore since I am now involved in an MFA program. These days I describe myself as a narrative painter. I am content with that term as well as its implications.
You have a background in writing, and you’ve referred to yourself as “a storyteller to my core.” Can you tell us about some of the stories that you’re illustrating? Is each painting a story unto itself, or do multiple pieces interact to present an overarching narrative?
AJH: Many of the narratives in my work are inspired, at least in part, by a real-life event or person that had some effect on me. I consider these narratives as mythologies in many ways, fantastical re-tellings of stories meant to warn, inspire, or simply to document. Because so many of the events that inspire me stem from my childhood in Montana, the world in which my paintings exist tends toward domestic settings in ordinary suburban neighborhoods with a touch of wilderness around the edges. That said, the body of work has moments of extreme individuality, as well as extreme incestuousness wherein characters overlap and interact across multiple paintings.
Does it bother you if viewers don’t understand the stories? Some of the titles are rather cryptic.
AJH: It used to bother me a bit if viewers did not understand the full story behind each painting—hence the verbose titles! I had a particular anxiety that if a narrative piece left any mystery in the viewer’s mind as to what exactly was occurring in the painting, then the viewer would reject the story (and painting) altogether. I diligently included as much detail as I could, both in the work and the title, which I still do on a regular basis. However, as of late I have started to trust my own visuals a touch more. I am now realizing I have provided enough of a framework within my work’s narrative world to be able to go out on a limb once in a while. I am now comfortable occasionally presenting the viewer with a cryptic scene and asking them what they see. In some ways it feels almost like I am testing the relationship I have built with my viewers. As in, I’ve spelled out the meaning of my symbology in the past—now can you read it back to me?
The rest of this interview can be found in issue 6.
Interview by Sean Redmond.