by Catherine Zinser
Ellen Heck does not make prints; she is a printmaker. What’s the difference? A printmaker bows to the age-old processes mastered hundreds of years ago yet has an expert understanding of the medium in order to manipulate it at will. Artists who merely make prints seem to be interested only in their multiplicity and lack the patience to experiment with the various techniques. The result is uninspired and flat. Heck, on the other hand, dominates the medium, layering different techniques and colors in one image resulting in a dynamic and harmonious array of lines and textures. While not necessarily an innovation, insight gained by such experimentation promises a very fruitful career for this young artist.
An Austin native, Heck studied philosophy at Brown and printmaking and painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently lives and works in California’s Bay Area. As an artist-in-residence at the Kala Art Institute, she began work on The Aging of Mark Twain on One Copper Plate and Forty Fridas, two portfolios that will hang with other work at Wally Workman Gallery in June 2012. Both touch on the theme of variation and play on the ideas of identity and time. Like those she draws inspiration from— Mary Cassatt, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and David Hockney— Heck chooses her medium very carefully. A prudent artist would not carve a gure that should be painted. Heck’s portfolios are paper-centric; they exploit printmaking. She pushes boundaries and creates images that would fall short in another medium.
“The similarities in “dress and demeanor became a framework for which the individuality of each woman [is] still so apparent—perhaps more so when viewed all together.”- Heck
In The Aging of Mark Twain on One Copper Plate Heck matures the recognizable literary figure in five steps. Each progression contains the ghost- like features of the younger Twain, gently fading in and out. The effect is not unlike reality—gazing at snapshots of a beloved visage and seeing the same sparkling eyes or crooked smile peeking out under slightly sagging features. Heck uses portraiture in the way that Jasper Johns used symbols in the 1950s. In the 0 through 9 series of drawings, paintings and lithographs, Johns layered all ten digits on a single field forcing each fragmentary number to compete for the viewer’s attention. Like the familiar symbols in Johns’ work, Heck’s use of a face (a recognizable one at that) facilitates an instant connection between the art and the viewer.
Did Heck choose the ideal medium for this ghostly effect or did she choose the ideal effect for this medium? A state refers to the action of running a plate through the press, making adjustments then reprinting the same plate. This basic principle of printmaking is used to follow the progress of one’s work; artists can watch a composition evolve and they often print an entire edition of each state. The portfolio “explore[s] ways in which the repeatability of printmaking will allow for the depiction of… the passage of time,” Heck reveals. She reevaluates the traditional use of states and incorporates the convention into the overall concept of the design.
For Forty Fridas, Heck pulls inspiration from another iconic figure, sparking immediate interest in her audience. Frida Kahlo painted her reality; she recorded images that owed through her mind. Her self-portraits occupy a prominent point in the timeline of art history. In another study in portraiture Heck relies on images from the internet and submissions from friends and family for photographs of people dressed up as the iconic artist. With Kahlo as the epicenter, the impersonators pay homage to her life and career but still stay true to their identity. Heck takes the snapshots and transfers them to copper with her signature style— a light hand with muted jewel-like shades reminiscent of 19th century artist Mary Cassatt— yet maintains an allegiance to Kahlo, the initial subject.
Though there are three hands in the final product, each is distinct and retains a unique identity. Heck explains that the similarities in “dress and demeanor became a framework for which the individuality of each woman [is] still so apparent—perhaps more so when viewed all together.” Pushing the theme of identity and variation even further, Heck pastes several impressions of the same print together to create large collages, a nod to the graphic portraits of Andy Warhol and David Hockney. As a result, Heck conceptualizes another key principle of printmaking—multiplicity. With twelve to fifteen Fridas differing only in their printed quality gazing at the viewer, the individual aspect of identity is sacrificed and variations of materiality come to the forefront.
Over the past hundred years or so, the graphic arts have slowly been slipping into the art world shadows. Relative to painting and sculpture they are inexpensive, and therefore, to the novice, a lesser art form. Historical prints are small in scale and require close, intimate examination. In the contemporary world of instant gratification, there is little patience for quiet, lengthy observations. Semantics also play a large role; a hundred years ago, printer referred to a master craftsman charged with inking plates and pulling impressions for artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse. Today it refers to the temperamental piece of machinery in your office that copies, scans and faxes.
Complicating matters more, printmaking involves techniques whose complexities are lost on an audience who are not familiar with them. Heck has no doubt seen these numerous obstacles plaguing this art form and addressed them by publishing a lovely book illustrated with photos of herself in her studio demonstrating several steps of the complicated process. The book is available in Austin at Wally Workman Gallery or through the website www.blurb.com. Her dedication to inform the masses about the idiosyncrasies of printmaking coupled with her obvious artistic aptitude positions her as a beacon for the future of graphic arts.
Ellen Heck will have a solo show at Wally Workman Gallery in October of 2017.