Toward a Conscious Vision
Adam N. Justice
All artistic discoveries are discoveries not of likenesses but of equivalencies, which enable us to see reality in terms of an image and an image in terms of reality.
As evolutionary creatures, we humans have grown to rely perhaps more on our vision than any other sense. As a means for survival and a conduit for belief, our sense of sight has rapidly evolved to be highly sophisticated. Consequently, it has been assigned as our immediate translator for reality, or at least physical reality, and bridges the remaining four senses toward a more immersive interaction with reality. Likewise, vision is often our foremost mediator when evaluating works of fine art. In forming a critique on contemporary visual interpretation, art historian David Summers promotes sight within the hierarchy of our senses. He writes, “Whereas we may infer or anticipate with probability the smell or sound or texture of things from the sight of them, the reverse is not so obviously true. In this scheme, therefore, sight [is] the highest, that is, the most mind like of the senses, closest to the faculties of judgment and reason, which in their turn deal with forms and ideas and their relations.” Yet, Summers goes on to examine how our personal visual observations, or perceptions, can often misinform our interpretations of artistic representation; despite how reliant we have become on our evolved sense of sight, it can be misleading when deciphering pictorial representation. By perhaps relying too heavily on what we expect to see and what we think we see, our perceptions adopt a corrupt understanding for an artwork’s true form and intended context.
In the 21st century, most audience’s expectations, and thus their perceptions, are easily swayed by the degree at which technology has been used to produce the image. We have been conditioned to expect technology to augment reality in such a way as to cheat our vision and confuse our interpretations of an artwork. In fact, there exists a complex tangle of trajectories between art and technology and at the center of this knot lies the authenticity of our sensory experiences, most especially our visual observations. Mechanically produced images, or photographic images, are more simulation than representation. They are often simulations that can lead us into a false sense of understanding because they do appear to be so real, even more than real. Other variables, such as the degree to which the image has been mechanically manipulated, if the image seems mass produced, and whether it is presented as high art, can further cloud our understanding for a work of art and therefore shade our belief in it.
Seeing is believing. This common phrase is loaded. It is an admission to our profound dependency on and trust in our sight to determine what is real, and therefore worthy of believing. From a philosophical standpoint, that is heavy, but, we are always trying to equate belief with reality (or at least hope they eventually converge from time to time). Our sight is perhaps the most logical and opportune way of doing so. Visually proving the existence of something just reinforces our beliefs in it.
While some artists openly embrace mechanical processes, and others react against them, there are those artists who choose to imitate them. By occupying a middle ground, these artists take an unorthodox advantage of technological reproduction by allowing it to inform their work rather than define it. In so doing, they likewise introduce technology as an informative component of our interpretations; viewers need only a basic familiarity with photography, for example, to interpret the formal composition of Georgia O’Keefe’s abstract paintings. The indirect way O’Keefe references photography through her cropped imagery, crowded compositions, and one-point perspective informs the viewer of its contribution to the painting, but O’Keefe does not allow photography to define the production or the subject of the painting. Contemporaries to O’Keefe, particularly Charles Sheeler and other painters from the Stieglitz Circle, used photography in much the same way: as an obvious ingredient, but not a stimulus. These painters chose to imitate the photographic composition while maintaining a completely manual production process. Later painters, like Richard Estes, Chuck Close, and Audrey Flack, broadened the influence of photography by including the realistic photographic image. This ultimately spurred the Photorealist movement in American painting, characterized by the emphasis on fine detail to produce paintings that were visual facsimiles of specific photographs. For these artists, the photographic image became the catalyst, the reference, and the guide throughout the painting process, and therefore a crucial part, although by-product, of the finished painting.
By removing boundaries between two contrasting media, these painters explored a new magnetism between the viewer and the image. Their works continue to cause us to question the authenticity of what we are looking at and question our belief in what we are seeing. Contemporary artists continue to experiment with mechanical processes in a wide range. But, as technology has advanced, conventional photographic methods and other mechanical modes of creation have been combined with more complex and immediate digital processes. Digital reproduction and, to an even greater degree, digital manipulation have again redefined the relationship between the viewer and the image by augmenting reality in a more compelling way.
You won’t believe your eyes! Another common phrase, often an exclamation that implies the opposite: a reversal in the trust held for seeing, and therefore believing. To not believe our eyes is to question everything. Our impulse is to think if something looks real, then it must surely exist as we see it. Mechanically and digitally produced simulations perpetuate a state of disbelief by manipulating the naturalism and realism of something.
Richard Heipp progresses the dialogue between painting and photography, exploiting mechanical processes to alter the viewer’s visual and physical interactions with a painting. Integral to his intent is the separation and reclassification of the individual acts of looking and seeing. Although his paintings are manually produced, they begin as 35mm photographs or high resolution digital scans. They are at once pictorial illusions while also being interactive objects that force us to shift our viewpoints in order to better realize their physical and formal features. In describing his airbrushed paintings, he coined the word photocentric. According to his own definition, Heipp’s paintings are not merely paintings of photographs, they are manually produced imitations of photographs or printed scans that explore the language and role of photography in contemporary culture. His paintings curtail the viewer’s traditional assumptions about the dichotomy between manual craftsmanship and mechanical production. They recondition the viewer’s visual consumption of the artwork as image and the artwork as object.
In recent series like Reflecting on Beuys and the Electro–Physiologie Series, Heipp mimics the language of original photographs to fully employ his concept of photocentrism. These large-scale airbrushed paintings are characterized by both visual realism within the photograph and the natural realism outside the physical photograph. By painting such external properties as reflections of light, shadows, and the physical condition of the photographic paper, Heipp broadens the original parameters of Photorealism to also include the actual object, or the photograph itself. He takes the element of illusion a step further by combining visual realism and physical realism. This may initially confuse the viewer’s usual ways of engaging with the artwork in order to reach a clear interpretation. The viewer still visually interacts with the painting, but in a more dynamic way that includes its illusory surface details and its illusory object hood. Or, as Heipp would explain, we are not merely looking at a painting, we are seeing the object.
In other works like his Visible Anatomy Series, Heipp explores the boundaries between craftsmanship and automated reproduction by translating digital scans into airbrushed paintings. Beginning with scanography, the method of capturing a composition of physical objects with a flatbed scanner, Heipp introduces a second dialect to his photocentric process. Specifically chosen objects are arranged in a particular composition onto a digital scanner. The internal light of the scanner is supplemented with peripheral exterior illumination to achieve color variations and a more three-dimensional rendition of the subject. The composition is then scanned, printed, and manually reproduced in paint on a larger scale. Similar to his photography-related work, these paintings redefine the viewer’s relationship with the objects in the painting, how they are visually re-presented, and the physical presence of the painting itself. Although the subject matter and the mechanical process used to derive the original images are different, Heipp maintains his photocentric approach to alter the presence of technological production and the physical engagement of the audience.
For over 40 years, Richard Heipp has persistently explored the boundaries between mechanical reproduction and manual craftsmanship. Although the philosophy behind his photocentric paintings began by investigating the respective but related roles of photography, painting, and illusion, it has evolved in ways to more deeply incorporate the role of the viewer. He redefines the visual relationship between audience and artwork, positioning the viewer at the crossroads of looking and seeing. Furthermore, as audiences continue to have progressively detached interactions with art through digital screens, Heipp’s paintings also reveal how our relationships with technology dictate, and often mislead, our interpretations in the 21st century. By using delusion to demystify illusion, Heipp re-contextualizes what we know as photography and what we think we know as painting. His paintings require our conscious eye; they force us to be present in front of an artwork, reevaluate our perceptions of what we are seeing, and therefore become more aware of the inherent deception of casual observation. To see is to know. To look is not enough.
Adam N. Justice is the Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. He is the former Curator of Art at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, where he initiated the exhibition Double Vision: Photocentric Paintings by Richard Heipp in 2016.
Richard’s as close to being my brother as I can imagine. First meeting him in 1980, when he moved to Gainesville with his family for a prime teaching gig at UF, was like encountering a friend I had somehow already known. Over the subsequent almost four decades we’ve shared countless stories, travels, challenges, and laughs – lots of laughs. Richard has an especially quick – and often irreverent – sense of humor that I find quite appealing.
Early on, Richard’s inexhaustible curiosity about virtually all manner of things struck me deeply. He remains a wonderfully unique artist who assembles disparate content parts into a seamless whole. A visit to Richard’s home studio is akin to stumbling upon a curiosity shop. Filled with collections of glass eyeballs, skeletal figures, foreign posters, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, image clippings, a row of guitars and other assorted ephemera – his environment is his art and vice versa. It’s fascinating to me that Richard’s depth of knowledge about all of this ‘stuff’ is genuine. He can (and does) wax enthusiastically about the sources of the eyeball collection, the translation of the posters, and the historical contextual details of his image sources.
Initially using cameras and scanners, Richard transforms disparate objects and pictures into his finished artwork. It’s impressive that throughout Richard’s intensive creative output – whether the subject is a victim of torture, a family member, or the late artist Joseph Beuys, the works present an array of visual strategies that are both discombobulating and complete.
I have always envied my artist-brother – he is peerless when it comes to the actual fabrication of his artworks. Richard has an innate, visceral ability to coherently relate his ideas with his imagery, materials, techniques, and final construction. He is a master at solving problems – efficiently and permanently. I well remember my own clumsy attempts at large scale picture framing, shipping-crate building, or trying to discretely glue two objects together. A short visit with Richard always results in the perfect fix. Decades later, my frames are intact, the shipping containers are battered but solidly functional, and everything is still stuck together!
Likewise, our friendship has stuck together. We alternate Thanksgiving dinners in Gainesville and Tampa. We share the trials and tribulations of our kids. We test the indulgence and patience of our wives. We both have eclectic tastes in music. (Fact: Richard is a superb Blues bass player.) We’ve traveled together in search of galleries for exhibition opportunities. In the mid-‘80s, we loaded up my 25 year-old Chevy pickup truck with scores of artworks to (largely unsuccessfully) peddle on the streets of Atlanta. We both love photography – sometimes I’ve teased Richard that he’s really a closet photographer using paint to give his artworks greater credibility!
We’ve attended dozens of art conferences – often with one of us seated in the audience while the other is at a microphone speaking about some obtuse topic. Richard is an outstanding teaching professor. I’ve shamelessly stolen many of his best tactics.
Eventually both of us became tenured, senior professors. When I was restless and considered a move into university administration, Richard was a balanced listener – delivering encouragement and confidence. Years later, the tables turned, and I offered my own support when he took on the Directorship of UF’s School of Art + Art History.
It’s been a delightful and fascinating ride these past 40 years. I’m so proud and happy that the Polk Museum has had the good sense to develop Richard’s exhibition. Those attending or perusing this catalog will discover one of Florida’s most creative talents. My artist-brother’s artistic productions will intrigue and beguile you.
Wallace Wilson is a Professor and the Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL
Richard was Right
As with all histories, there is an element of revision in that summarization; certainly Richard wasn’t right about every little thing all the time. But when I think back to the defining moments of our relationship—to those ‘crossroads’, ‘touchstone’ experiences under his mentorship and my real hours of need as a student and aspiring professional—the observations, encouragements, counsels, and even critiques that Richard shared with me were, in hindsight and almost without exception, right. Small things: what staple gun and palette knife to buy; Big things: how to make the most of graduate school and structure effective studio time; Professional things: formatting your CV and negotiating a contract; Personal things: bouncing back from disappointment and finding balance in life. Nothing was dismissed as trivial or seemed beyond the scope of his concern. And suggestions that I myself had once received skeptically are now, in true ‘circle of life’ fashion, being passed on by me to an incredulous new generation of young artists.
Richard was right.There is a kind of right- ness, of course, that goes beyond the particulars of being correct or incorrect on a given subject. When I say, for example, that my spouse is ‘right’ for me I mean that, given the total summary load of who and what I am, there is a powerful and essential complementary action that she performs in my life. Richard is not my spouse! But by that same logic, given the total summary load of who and what I am (and who and what I have been at different moments of our relationship) there is a powerful and essential complementary action that he has performed for me. When I needed a push he told me flatly that I wasn’t in the studio enough. When I needed some time he gave me an “Incomplete” so that I could finish a project over the summer. When I told him I didn’t “understand what was so great about Jackson Pollock” he laughed, and helped me plan and fund my first trip to New York City. When I complained about having too much work over the break he smiled, and told me that the times he felt most like an artist were when he was in his studio on Holidays. When I needed a job he wrote, what one of my former colleagues called, “the best recommendation letter I have ever seen.” His generosity; his incredible mental and physical energy; his ability to lead with an authority earned through years of professional and personal integrity; his willingness to be and to hold accountable; his friendship, faith and support have all been essential in shaping the course of the last ten years of my life. He was right for me. And I, quite sincerely and literally, would not be who, what, or where I am without him.
The origins of the friendship and mentorship I have described here were not accidental - I would not, I think, have been open to Richard’s influence in the way I have been were it not for the deep respect I have for him as an artist. As soon as I was exposed to it, Richard’s work came to embody, for me, a kind of ideal, an uncompromising and captivating balance between technical and conceptual ambition. Richard’s works are energized by the fact that each of these elements is poured in right up to the brim, to a tipping point where they might be expected to interfere with one another, cancel each other out or collapse—but they hold. And the system remains taught, suspended in this charged state. I first recognized this quality in the Germanic Guilt Symbols series, selections of which I had encountered at the Harn Museum years before Richard and I would actually become acquainted. And it is this balance which, I believe, has reached a new phase of maturity in the recent Reflecting on Beuy s series. In these works, paintings made from photographs of photographs, we see Joseph Bueys—quixotic symbol of a uniquely 20th century (and quintessentially German) struggle for balance between the rational and spiritual. His iconic moments are reframed and disrupted by the bright light of institution and the dark silhouette of the photographer. In these new works, technical mastery and the weight of history are brought back within the emotional and mortal scale of the individual artist, opening up a space of profound personal reflection.
Chase Westfall is the Director of The Anderson at Virginia Commonwealth University, School of the Arts in Richmond, VA. He is the former Director of Protocol Gallery and Fermenter Space in Gainesville, FL. He received his BFA from the School of Art + Art History at the University of Florida, and his MFA from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia.