Argue with Pictures

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Robert Heinecken, "Time (1st Group)," 1969. Courtesy Cherry and Martin.

Hugh W. Diamond, a 19th century English psychiatrist, began using photography as a therapeutic strategy nearly as soon as photography existed. Diamond would photograph the mentally ill patients he worked with and then confront them with the resulting likenesses, confident that the radical power of reality would jar them into recognizing their own delusions. He once wrote of a patient he called A.D., who believed herself to be royalty:

Her subsequent amusement in seeing the portraits [of herself in various stages of her illness] and her frequent conversation about them was the first decided step  in her gradual improvement.

Diamond believed his strategy worked—no one can argue with a picture.

But argue with pictures is practically all artists have done over the past 60 years, ever since pop cut into the ego of abstract expressionism and advertisements became as visually adventurous as art. They Have Not the Art to Argue with Pictures, the current exhibition at Cherry and Martin Gallery, takes as its premise the immense distrust that 20th and 21st century artists have for the photographic image. It also probes the indulgent fascination that always seems to accompany that distrust.  They Have Not the Art primarily mines the work of Robert Heinecken, the late California artist whose gritty, un-apologetically risque reinterpretations of magazine imagery exposed but also seemed in awe of pop culture’s sexiness.

Robert Heinecken, "Revised Magazine: Jungle Prints / Cuts / Porno," 1993. Courtesy Cherry and Martin.

In Revised Magazine: Jungle Prints / Cuts / Porno (1993), Heinecken juxtaposes images from mainstream ads–a black and white one that says “Be what you want, but always be you” and another of a model in a tiger print top–with blatantly erotic images of women painted with tiger stripes or clad in jungle print jump suits. The resulting tangle of bodies is crass and even cheap; there’s nothing lyrical about the way Heinecken cuts into and overlays images. In another collage, Hite/Hustler Fashion Beaver Hunt #1 (1981), a stately woman holds a blue fan and stands between two plush arm chairs. She would have been wearing a white sheath if Heinecken hadn’t replaced it with the cut out of a tan, nude female torso haphazardly wrapped in black and white rope. Instead, she wears a naked body.

Heinecken’s images feel dirty, not because they’re in poor taste or needlessly provocative, but because they literally do “dirty up” the sleek surface of ads in a way that doesn’t invalidate the sensuality of glossy imagery but rather follows that sensuality through to its natural conclusions. If Heinecken aimed to combat the packaged, deceptively complete aura of 20th century advertisements, he did so by exposing and then re-complicating their subtext.

Robert Heinecken, "Revised Magazine: Maidenform," 1993. Courtesy Cherry and Martin.

Subtext literacy is what the exhibition’s ungainly title,  They Have Not the Art to Argue with Pictures, refers to. It’s a phrase from Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media, written after Heinecken had already begun his long career as an art-maker. McLuhan suggests that pictures can’t be understood in the sequential way most have been taught to read text and that those who have the tools to argue with contemporary imagery are those who understand that media collapses sequences into each other and presents a thrust of emotional energy meant to manipulate.

Heinecken had the tools he needed to argue, but not to conquer. The exciting and frightening aspect of his work is that it’s endlessly caught in the web of its source material. Even though Heinecken breaks into imagery, superimposing pin-up girls over domesticated car ads and cutting body parts out of magazine spreads, he never breaks out of it. But breaking out isn’t the point; needing to argue is.

They Have Not the Art to Argue with Pictures, which closes on July 17th, also traces Heinecken’s legacy through the work of a number of younger artists, including Erik Frydenborg, Nicolás Guagnini, Wade Guyton, Leigh Ledare, Amanda Ross-Ho and Collier Schorr.

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