Robert Heinecken is an artist who is hard to pin down. A photographer who rarely used a camera, he founded UCLA’s photography department in 1964. Skeptical of the documentarian role of photography, he mined images from mass media, prefiguring the appropriation strategies of Pictures Generation artists like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine by at least a decade. Despite this, he was never able to achieve the notoriety accorded these artists. The exhibition Robert Heinecken: Sensing the Technologic Banzai, now on view at Cherry and Martin through November 16th, aims to set the record straight with a reconsideration of his oeuvre.
Covering work from the 1980s—the second third of Heinecken’s career—the show features four main bodies of work, each showcasing a different artistic technique. Perhaps most well known are his magazine photograms, which he began making in the 1960s (the ones in this exhibition are from around 1990). To make these, Heinecken treated magazine pages like negatives; the resulting image is a composite of both sides of the page. Using mostly advertisements, Heinecken’s only artistic intervention is the selection of the pages. The final images appear natural at first—front and back unified by the common language of seductive luxury—but the more one looks at these, the more an awkward dialogue between the different sources causes an unsettling disjuncture. Heinecken’s skill as an editor is what makes these images so compelling; they attract us with the aesthetics of advertising, and then thwart our gaze by subtly complicating their messages of desire.
The earliest works in the show also deal with sex and commerce, albeit in a much more obvious way. Socio Fashio Lingerie #2–#9 (1981) are collages of a sort, featuring pages torn from lingerie catalogues. In each of these small works, a model strikes a pose and looks out at us invitingly. Instead of wearing a nightgown or bra however, each model’s naked body can be seen where these garments should be. Heinecken has carefully cut out the clothes and positioned the catalogue images over bodies from pornographic magazines. The seductiveness of these images is hampered by the unnerving juxtaposition of body parts that never quite match. These works pull back the curtain on the sexuality lying beneath the surface of everyday marketing images. Heinecken manages to critique visual culture while at the same time indulging in its basest aspects. These are cheeky one-liners that, while entertaining, lack the nuance of his photograms.
The third series in the exhibition focuses on television news as another aspect of the barrage of contemporary media images. These works from 1984 all feature gauzy images of newswomen that seem to be illuminated from within by a blue or purple light. Heinecken made these videograms by holding a piece of photographic paper up to the television during a newscast, capturing a visual trace of the newscaster. As with his photograms, he has removed himself almost completely from the act of creation. Divorced from their original context and floating uniformly in their inky backgrounds, these striking ghostly visages are at odds with the supposed transparent truth provided by accepted news sources. This message must have seemed especially prescient at a time when cable news was just becoming big business.
Accompanying these modest two-dimensional works is a large-scale installation titled Waking Up in News America (1986). Seen here for the first time in almost two decades, the piece consists of a room plastered wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with photolithographs of televisions featuring images of female newscasters. They also cover everything in the room, including two mannequins, a lamp, a television, a chair, a book, etc. Although impressive in its execution, I found myself underwhelmed in the midst of this TV environment. The pervasive influence of mass media may be so ubiquitous at this point that its visual manifestation no longer has the same impact that it did thirty years ago. The photolithographs also lack the presence of the videograms, appearing dull and flat when compared with the supernatural glow of these earlier works.
Despite its unevenness, this exhibition is a welcome recuperation of a long-overlooked but influential artist. Although his source material may be dated, Heinecken’s work still feels relevant and alive. His photograms especially remain engaging as they balance elegant formal juxtapositions with a cool, conceptual distance. His work seems to ask the question: “In a world crowded with images, why make brand new ones when you can create meaning from those that already exist?”
Robert Heinecken: Sensing the Technologic Banzai is on view at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles through November 16, 2013.