The work of Minnesota-based Jay Heikes might always have been called down-to-earth. Primarily a sculptor and installation artist, Heikes composes crude but delicate assemblages of found and manipulated objects, often of metal.
In his current show now open in Joslyn Art Museum’s Riley CAP Gallery, Heikes has left the familiar confines of the earth to meditate in the stratosphere and beyond. The exhibition contains a half dozen large cloud paintings and four small spherical sculptures that constitute the artist’s search for a kind of Zen, away from the social cacophony and divisiveness he experiences here on terra firma.
The paintings, each with the title “Mother Sky,” feature an airplane’s-eye view of various billowing cloud formations. In fact, they are photographic images that are silkscreened onto his canvases. The dot matrix of the printing screens remains evident on the canvas, articulating that the artist’s interest is not in fooling the eye with figurative reproduction, but in creating a kind of familiar or remembered sensation.
Essentially, the cloud imagery meets Heikes’ definition of “banal” and “inconsequential,” documentary views so seemingly straightforward and so neutralized by the screen matrix as to be fully resistant to divided opinion or alternate interpretations. The clouds just “are” and provide a place to just “be.”
To that same end, the gallery setting is light and soft. Cool white walls are matched with white, sound-dampening wall-to-wall carpeting, creating a cocoon like space that is unusual in traditional art settings. Similarly, the lighting is bright and even, yet the experience does not quite yield to a transcendental peace.
This is mainly because the artist establishes a mood for the canvases by impregnating each with an overall tint. Their tonalities, described as a range of “sickly greens, eerie yellows, and iridescent oranges,” occurs because Heikes has stained each canvas with a proprietary blend of vinegar, salt and powdered pigment.
The results change each work from any reading of celestial radiance and solitude into the metaphorical portent of twilight or of gathering storms. Is the coppery tone backlighting of the brightest paintings a sunset afterglow or is it the “red sky at morning” that makes sailors take warning? Which end of the sublime—that beauty tinged with terror—might they represent? And, thus, enters room for interpretation, meteorological or otherwise.
And what of the small, spherical sculptures that rest as dots on the floor? They are singly and collectively titled “Minor Planets,” calling to mind the myriad exoplanets that are discovered daily within our galaxy alone. One is fashioned wood and bronze, others in bismuth and crushed copper sheeting, and with their craggy surfaces of essential materials, seem as old as time. As “minor” celestial bodies, they simultaneously meet the definitions of “banal” and “mysterious.” The orbs clad in copper are exhibiting the natural processes of oxidizing and shedding. Is this a sign of life emerging or receding? Certainly, it is not a vision of stasis any more than a frozen image of clouds cloaks their ephemeral nature.
In the end, the question seems to be whether Heikes’ works truly manifests the extra-terrestrial escapism that is his stated goal? No doubt, this is in the eye of the beholder. In the information accompanying the show, curator Karin Campbell posits another POV, suggesting that the artist acknowledges the dark humor and irony in his collection of roiling clouds wrought during turbulent times.
In fact, there’s a whole fascinating story of American landscape painting made in the Civil War era that encoded the sublime, awesome majesty of nature as a reflection of national sentiment. The fiery, darkening skies of an epic mountain sunset. The apocalyptic explosion of volcanos. The dance of the Aurora Borealis in Arctic skies.
Such earthly phenomena were not just romantic, operatic representations of nature’s power. They were loaded expressions of the profound disturbances that divided the social fabric and threatened America’s democratic foundations. It is to this subtext that Heikes’ art inevitably connects. Now where’s the moment of Zen?
Jay Heikes is featured in the Riley CAP Gallery through September 8, 2019, at Joslyn Art Museum. There is no admission fee for this show. The museum is located at 2200 Dodge Street and is open Tues-Sun from 10am-4pm; late ‘til 8pm on Thurs. For more information, visit www.joslyn.orgor call 402/342-3300.