Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rachel Hecker at the Art League

Robert Boyd

Rachel Hecker: Group Show

Rachel Hecker is the Art League's Texas artist of the year. This honor has been given out every year since 1983. I can't find a complete list, but some past recipients were Dick Wray, Aaron Parazette, Joseph Havel, Dixie Friend Gay, Melissa Miller, Mary McCleary, Keith Carter,  Al Souza, Luis Jimenez, Lucas Johnson, Sharon Kopriva, Bert L. Long, Jr., Jesús Moroles, and John Biggers. So nice honor. And you get an exhibit out of it. Rachel Hecker: Group Show is the paradoxical name of this exhibit, but it's not an actual group show. The pieces here are pieces that don't fit in with her previous practice of big series (like series of portraits of Jesus or series of post-it notes). These are odds and ends. But this collection of disparate paintings and sculptures doesn't feel scattered or heterogeneous. While Hecker works hard at expunging any hint of a personal style from her work, all these objects have common elements. They are funny. They are very clean and precise. And many (but not all) involve taking something real and massively scaling it up.

Peppermint Air Freshener, 2006, acrylic on wood, 40 x 24 inches

Normally a car air freshener is what? Two inches? Two and a half? And like her post-it note paintings, the subject here is extremely banal. Obviously this kind of work recalls Andy Warhol, and specifically his Brillo Boxes. In the press release for the exhibit, Hecker says, "I love [painting's] history and deplore its authority." She is paying homage to painting's recent history with Peppermint Air Freshener, but she also seems to be acknowledging its authority. It's hard to do otherwise--painting is a very large box that is hard to think outside of. In any case, Peppermint Air Freshener works because it's funny, not as a critique of painting.

Ear That Cannot Hear, EPS Foam, joint compound & paint, 15 x 3 1/2 x 8 inches

Other outsized objects are sculptures. A giant ear stuffed with cotton. A medical bracelet that reads "FALL RISK." A burnt match. They each take something humble and turn it into something relatively monumental. Again, Hecker references Pop art in doing this--specifically, I think of Claes Oldenberg's similar monumentalizing of ordinary objects. But what each of these three sculptures also does is to suggest a story. Ear That Cannot Hear is not about deafness, but about plugging your ears--why? Because there is a jackhammer on your street? You neighbor's loud party is keeping you awake? Some irritating noise caused someone (Hecker?) to plug her ears.

Fall Risk Bracelet, 2010, 16 dia x 6 inches

Fall Risk Bracelet makes me think of an older person, perhaps a parent or grandparent, who has lost mobility due to age and infirmity and is perhaps afraid to walk. I think of hard hospital floors and brittle bones. I think of taking care of a geriatric relative. An article in the Houston Chronicle says that Hecker's ailing mother came to live with her in 2004 and 2005, and that Hecker had to work in her house instead of her studio so she could keep an eye on her mother. I don't know if Fall Risk Bracelet refers to that period, but it does hint at story like that.

Matchstick, 2006, wood, paper, sand & paint, 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches

And Matchstick is the simplest story of all. A match was lit and burned and then put out. Beginning, middle and end. It could be as simple as lighting a cigarette or a pilot light. It could be as dramatic as arson. The thing about all of these pieces is that they recall a kind of 60s-style Pop disinterest and coolness but sneak in a suggestion of personal resonance. I don't know if a story or personal experience lays behind these pieces--but when I look at them, I get the feeling that there is such a story. At first, they strike me as humorous Pop objects. the more I look at them, the more emotion I feel.

Floating Xanex, 2013, plastic, wood, magnet and electromagnet

This is the paradox of Hecker's art. It has a cold, clean, untouched-by-human-hands look. Any given piece looks like it could have been manufactured according to specific instructions. The subject matter is frequently banal and, on the surface, meaningless or trivial. And yet there is a repeated hint of emotion--even of anguish--once you get past the walls Hecker erects to prevent such an interpretation.

The spookily levitating, spinning bottle of Xanax, for example; at first you are drawn to it because, well, you don't often see objects floating in space. There's a wow factor. But when you realize that it's a bottle of the prescription psychoactive drug Xanax, you may start thinking about what Xanax is for. Xanax is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. According to Wikipedia, some of the side effects include "drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, unsteadiness and impaired coordination [and] vertigo."Those side effects are briskly implied by the fact that the bottle is both floating and spinning. It is also very addictive. You take it to control out of control emotions, but taking it is dangerous. Or to put it another way, having emotions is perilous and suppressing emotions is perilous. Hecker's work (at least the work in this show) is so tightly controlled that it feels like suppressed emotion.

Burn Painting #2 (Series #2), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Even a depiction of a painting on fire avoids overt violence. The flame is smooth--it is a controlled burn. Compared to burned work like those by Cai Guo-Qiang or The Art Guys, Burn Painting #2 is a calming image. Looking at it is like looking at a candle flame. But it is an image of destruction. Anger is under the surface--the phrase "slow burn" comes to mind.

Let me stop right here and confess that I have no idea what emotions if any underlie these paintings and sculptures by Rachel Hecker. I don't know if their is actually a story behind a given work. I have no idea if she or anyone she knows has ever taken a Xanax. I'm not a mind-reader and I'm irritated when critics pretend to be so. These speculations are my way of understanding the work, but not the way of understanding it. If this seems wishy washy to you, you're right! But I wanted to say it anyway because these works defy simple characterization, seemingly by design.

Not Made in China, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 12 inches

After all, the deadpan humor of Not Made in China seems like nothing more than what it says. It describes itself (presumably--although I suppose she could have had this painted in China through one of those Chinese painting companies). In which case the humor would be deadpan and ironic.

Finger Statue, 2013, coasted EPS foam and acrylic, 65 x 27 x 15 inches (with Herman Grid Variation, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 54 inches)

Finger Statue is another hugely out of scale sculpture, but its implications are all happy to me--indeed, the other side of a the statue has a little smiley face drawn on the fingertip. It occurs to me that Finger Statue might be a monument to fingerbanging. Considering all the wars and generals who get monuments to them, I strongly support any monument to sexual pleasure, as long as it is as witty and delightful as Finger Statue. (Of course, Finger Statue has several notable precursors.)

Group Show has a slick, clean plastic surface. With some of the work, what you see is what you get. But there is something behind that surface, which is ultimately what makes this work so fascinating.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I own a small painting by Rachel Hecker.)



  1. monument to finger banging? are you serious? what an incredibly sophomoric conclusion. it is an index finger with a contrived symbol of a face looking at a hermann grid. in the most obvious way the two pieces in tandem (and i stress in tandem because they function as a unit) reference vision and the ability to see and not see. how you came to the conclusion that there is some sort of implied sexual innuendo from the finger is beyond me and im sure anyone but you. do you look at a hot dog and think about it as a phallus and your eating of it representative of felatio? most likely not because the immediately understood context doesnt allow for that reading unless a perverse agenda is projected onto it. if you ever want your platform to be taken seriously you need to realize that you have an intellectual responsibility in regards to your readers and the community at large.

    1. My opinions may be foolish, incorrect or even perverse, but they're mine. I take responsibility for them by signing my name to them.

  2. I haven't seen the show yet (I'm going to go today), but just to help Anonymous, I'm going to admit that I, too, look at a large, smoothly-sculpted finger and can't imagine it without any sexual overtones. It's puerile (or puritanical) to ignore what is right in front of you. And at any rate, dogmatically declaring that the piece(s) "reference vision and the ability to see and not see" and nothing more (!) seems downright silly coming from anyone except the artist. And any artist who creates the smart work that Rachel Hecher makes knows better than to presume that the artist gets to control the audiences' responses to the work. It may well be that there's more to the giant finger than a sly sexual reference, but getting pissed off that someone states the obvious says more about Anonymous than it does about Hecher's work or Boyd's review.