This essay with four poems was first published in September 2021, by Hollis Taggart Gallery, as part of their exhibition catalogue for the presentation of “Entanglement: Hollis Heichemer.“
The modern mind is encouraged to satisfy curiosity via a ticking of boxes. The quest for inspiration is often presented as a shopping expedition—think TED talks, listicles, and viral video tutorials—that offer the promise of insight through osmosis. Is such unidirectional conveyance really capable of stimulating and stretching the imagination?
Somewhere along the way, we’ve been absolved of the presumed tedium of hard study, the frustration of grappling, and the risk of handling material whose depths may not be easily plumbable. Insight is now algorithmically pre-programed as a fait accompli. Forget the heroic labors of Hercules, just sit back and scroll your way to savvy: Top 10 Books to Quote Over Cocktails, 5 Secrets to Click-worthy Photography, 3 Hacks to Up Your Art Game.
If something cannot be quickly deconstructed, diagnosed, or distilled, we are now permitted to lose interest or even grow offended that some secret is being withheld from us. This is a complaint with which many poets are familiar. I suspect that an artist as intriguingly oblique and beguiling as Hollis Heichemer may also have been tested with the question: What are your paintings “trying to say,” as if exposition were the fullest measure of their value or relevance.
If, as the poet and critical essayist Kenneth Rexroth once wrote, “All art is a symbolic criticism of values,” then it is the challenge of each artist to decide how much and how directly she reveals a personal truth. It is also the challenge of her audience to resist the desire for an easily repeatable sound bite or “take away” explanation. The demand for literal meaning risks missing the actual point. A desire to deconstruct the “meaning” of a painting can defeat both artist and audience. It places a commodity between what can be a much more fluid, expansive, and valuable exchange.
Feeling is first. Let us lead with that—or better yet, let’s follow it. Think of the most moving experiences you’ve had in your life. Likely the fullness of sensation drains out when you’ve tried to describe the profound singularity of that moment to someone else. It’s akin to pinning a butterfly to Styrofoam in hopes of recalling its flare of beauty in flight. Heichemer’s creations share something of a wild butterfly’s iridescence on the wing. May we thus approach her paintings as similarly vital and vibrant life forms? I believe we should in order to fully embrace and activate the arc of their own (and our own) discovery.
There are certain things that we know to be real and true at a primal level, not because we can deduce them, but because they are intrinsic to the sap and sinew of our being. Love is like this, as is awareness of mortality. This elemental recognition is at the heart of Hollis Heichemer: Entanglement. To enter the world of Heichemer is to suspend the need to own a fact; it spurs a deeper sense of connection to self and to others. Here you are to be absolved of the arrogance of didactic certainty. Each painting is an invitation. You begin to breathe, then feel, then think as though both gloriously lost in and one with the vast mystery of being.
Imagine that standing in the glow of a Heichemer painting, you are standing before a mirror. The self becomes both essential and immaterial. Were Heichemer still living in an urban realm, she might capture the shapes and shines of urban debris, the colors of commercialism, the lights of billboards, street signs, and flashing lights. But she now lives in the wooded world of rural New Hampshire. Her paintings collage sensory inputs from nature itself. Her source media are elemental, seasonal, relics of felt experience, characterized by relative solitude and the act of listening and observation. She seems to hold a magnifying glass to a pool of water that is anything but stagnant up-close. Or is she tracing the marks that sunlight makes across a field, the energy of a leaf returning to dust, to nutrients, to the web that knits a human invader to her chosen habitat. Heichemer invites us to walk down her paths and run in her shoes, among the less visible mechanisms of stimuli as they flash upon the imagination of a single and singular artist.
What do these paintings say about the value of beauty or of what we humans value as beautiful? Can we compare the idealized perfection of Venus de Milo to the ephemeral breeding and feeding ground of a vernal pool? Which rouses us to greater heights of revelation or wider moments of contemplation? Do we have to choose? Says who?
Envision yourself staring into the eyes of ancient Greek statuary, seeking the glow that shone for its sculptor long ago. Now, picture yourself staring into one of these shallow self-contained pools formed by winter snow melt or spring rain. You will witness birth, death, and the struggle for survival bursting forth in rare and wriggling glory. There is a place, Heichemer seems to suggest, where the beastliness and beauty of life coexist. She reminds us that we too belong, as much in the salamander’s shallows as in the cloister of a marble hall.
with wings of equal size and shape tapered close
to the body a sort of elegant damsel
would you called me forth or fly
for a farther window
where those of staggered span dwell
climb up o’here be dragons
these braids (meaning also sudden movement)
bronze spears sun-lit
fate’s iridescence on the wind yet not of it
when first i beheld you
skim the water like a sea plane
dip your shoulder to the pool (how i longed to glide
towards that secret
(spring) of a touch
i can not name
just listen for the whir)
focus: shift we from object to essence
cradled in pretext to pollination
stretched to send forth
flights of turnstone
gills of opening
& immediately exotically, possibly the last known
here and hungry leap this is
each our choice
as a bow upon the cello
not long awake
she leaves the warmth
of home to lope the lanes
in the ancient way hung with frost
parting darkness switches on the gaze
that seeks no object other-wise beyond
the crackled lichen clinging
unripe to bark to branch
to bough tenderly traversed
she treads tapestries of bosky
debris which lie upon the floating
floor like glass slippers
the frozen needles of a pine
gathered music for the puddles
to wind ribbons of flowering time
trail them in the cobwebs and dust
sing out again as the riot of Autumn
sounding ways, coming home
as rites of purification
an old year gets thrown off
quicker than dynamite’s
lovely brittle sticks can
melt hard mile’s desire
this utility of lost chances
too breathless for diction
claims a silent eloquence
beneath ice and uncertainty
new moons cast the sky
yet you have had enough
of stillness to find the wish
to set your tooth
inside its hunger
taste from husk
each color becoming
a new native species
capable of containing
(or erasing) its own
We met in wet grass in the early morning and lay there until the sky shone with ancient stories. A Cat’s Eye Nebula, the Tadpole Galaxy, Celestial Eagle and Swan. Summer’s asterism only 17 million miles away. Side by side, our fingers stitched into baskets, we cradle our own thoughts, touching only at bent elbows, our bare feet. I want to tell you, though I’m not sure that I can really explain, about the time I met an animal alone in the woods. Which one, you ask. There are different ways to answer that, as it is with any question. None of them say enough. So I begin to count what I can of these terrestrial stars. Each lightning bug produces a chemical reaction inside its abdomen. This bioluminescence occurs when oxygen and the enzyme luciferase meet. It’s a cold light generating little actual heat. Like a ghost lamp. Such facts are another way of trying to add up the disparate moments that make a life. The Latin word lucifer means morning star or light-bringing, if used as a descriptor. I suppose people do change. Even angels. Even this garden. Yet I know that if I let my smallest toe lean into yours, right now, I will feel warm all over. Somehow this is everything and enough.