Interview by Amanda Quinn Olivar, Editor
Heidi Hahn (b. 1982, Los Angeles, CA) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Hahn received her MFA from Yale University in 2014, and her BFA from Cooper Union in 2006. She is an acting Professor of Painting and Drawing at Alfred University, NY and has been the recipient of several awards, residencies, and fellowships, including the Jerome Foundation Grant; Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Residency, Madison, ME; and the Fine Arts Work Center Residency, Provincetown, MA, among others. Her work has been collected by the Kadist Foundation, Paris, France and has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the world, including the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, KS (2018); V1 Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark (2018); Anton Kern Gallery, New York, NY (2018); and Premier Regard, Paris, France (2013). Her work has also been reviewed in numerous publications, including The New York Times and Art in America.
Amanda Quinn Olivar: The title of your inaugural exhibition, and of each work on view at Kohn Gallery, is Burn Out in Shredded Heaven. Is there a story behind the title, and is the title referenced in the work?
Heidi Hahn: The title for me represents a nihilistic impulse to give up and give in to something that is banal and doesn’t work but it’s the reality of life. All the women in this body of work are faltering in some way, or just fine existing. They are sweeping, shopping, waiting in rooms, riding the subway. Nothing is asking for their presence at all. They do not have to give anything of their true selves in any of these situations. Shredded heaven is the here and now. All imperfection and pain, yet part of it has to be desirable to keep on living, right? All my titles are an umbrella to a whole series of works. By giving them all the same title and just numbering them, I am almost saying that the title is arbitrary to the experience of the painting itself. The language is secondary and it’s only a suggestion of feeling, a residue left over from the actual thing.
Amanda: What made you want to be a figurative artist, and what drew you to painting as your medium of choice?
Heidi: I’m interested in stories, the idea of stories: even a sentence that might describe a whole scenario or mode of thinking. I am a failed writer. Description escapes me. I find with paint the description can be in the materiality, and all I have to do is distill the images into some overall experience. I have never called myself an artist; I am always and only a painter. It’s through that lens that I navigate in my life. I can’t think in other mediums; the creativity just doesn’t translate. Oil paint has an alchemy to it—it’s sensual and elusive. Right when I think I know how to use it, it slips away and I am always left chasing it. I guess that’s its allure for me. I keep missing out on it in some ways, so it’s always the next body of work that will figure it out.
Amanda: How would you describe your work and the cast of female characters you paint? What roles do color and form play?
Heidi: I would describe my work as narrative formalism; I am trying to express something and I want the materiality of paint to do most of the heavy lifting. Color for me is anti-intellectual. I hate to use the word intuitive, but it just is. I fight to represent a certain mood, and all of that comes from the color I’m using. The idea of form is so malleable in my work. The definition switches from painting to painting. The woman can be a means to get at form; perhaps they are stand-ins for formal concerns, like composition, mark-making, saturation, etc. It all is just paint on canvas. It’s so artificial to me in that way. That’s why the woman or spaces don’t really have a real feel to them: because they are just material.
Amanda: Was there a specific moment or impetus that inspired you to focus on women?
Heidi: I have always been interested in women’s lives: how they are represented or how they represent themselves. In literature, film, painting, always the appreciative gaze, always the idea of beauty as an entry point... the classicism of that representation. I want to represent woman as I myself live, or my girlfriends, sisters, and my mother. There is a rich inner life that many people who paint women don’t articulate or expand upon. It always seemed to stop with the surface or just a body. I distrust this work, even when other women are perpetuating the stereotype. I just resent it because that is not how I exist at all. So, for me to paint women or have my practice encompass that conversation is important. I am not romanticizing them at all; I’m always trying to dispense with the clichés.
Amanda: What is most important to you about the visual experiences you create? Are there reoccurring themes and messages you hope your audiences will relate to?
Heidi: I always say I’ve been telling the same story for twenty years; I’m just trying to tell it in different ways. The paintings promise a certain intimacy, but really they’re quite withholding. They always have been. Maybe I’m at a loss on how to feel good in life, how to represent optimism, so in my work I promise it because it’s what I want for myself, but at the end of the day they are a bit pessimistic. I’m also into small gestures; I don’t make provocative paintings. They are quiet; you almost have to lean in to hear the message. I do make work to relate to other people. To be in a conversation outside of myself. I’m not sure if the paintings have one singular point trying to be made; I think more of montage, woman representing different states of being.
Amanda: Is there a story behind Burn Out in Shredded Heaven 4?
Heidi: I was thinking of transient spaces, where I am most myself but so not myself at the same time. I am unaware of myself but super aware of external things and people. The subway is the most honest landscape I can think of… the most truthful in its representation of traditional landscape. I don’t paint nature, but I find this is the most truth I can handle in a depiction of real space.
Amanda: You describe abstraction as a “mode of falling apart”. What does that mean?
Heidi: I don’t believe things can keep their integrity all the time; I think in certain moments everything falls apart... people, places, things, everything. I find the most honest place to work from is when things have fallen apart: where your failure is almost a whole new start. I can begin again because everything is ruined. This for me is when innovation occurs. The disconnect of things making sense or having to make sense gives room to a lot of freedom. With this freedom, I am able to depict a different kind of world, a different kind of existence.
Amanda: Please relate a memory that changed your life and artistic outlook.
Heidi: My first painting: it was a portrait of an imaginary woman. I was fifteen. It was horrible but it was a start. This led to a compulsion that has sustained me for over twenty years. I have had the way I look at art shaken up over the years and it’s always by looking at other paintings. Things that I’m jealous of, things I desire and don’t understand... things that don’t make sense and I have to interpret it so it has meaning for me. Or thinking of working in genres, how do I break down these different formal concerns and make it my own... It’s exciting to work through them.
Amanda: What is your favorite art accident?
Heidi: I think all accidents in painting are wonderful. Sometimes they lead to ruin and sometimes exultation; either way it takes you to an interesting place. I make a lot of allowances when I paint; I let things happen and then problem-solve after the fact. I always think I’m a reactionary painter; yes, I have an ultimate goal of what I want the painting to do, but it rarely turns out that way. The moment I give up on an agenda, that’s when the paint takes over, and thank god it does, because that way of working seems stagnant to me. I think the moment I give up on an agenda, when the paint takes over, I’m able to get more experimental with the material.
Images courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery