Mark Heyer: Recent Paintings
Lohin Geduld Gallery
531 West 25th Street
Until April 23
One of the appeals of Outsider Art is its apparent sincerity–the relief it offers from Postmodernist detachment and appropriation. The problem lies in verifying its authenticity, because a skilled artist can find ways to appropriate even the appearance of sincerity. After all, how hard is it to apply a naïve technique to naive subject matter?
Actually, it’s as difficult as any other kind of painting if you have any convictions about how a painting goes together. This is part of the intrigue of Mark Heyer’s quietly oddball paintings. One would think it impossible in 2005 to produce, with the careful-clumsy mannerisms of the self-taught, scenes of circuses, cabarets, and nineteenth-century whaling adventures without descending to mere quaintness. Yet by and large Heyer pulls it off.
His antique frames help, as do one or two idiosyncrasies of modeling—indulgent curlicues in a tornado’s funnel, for instance. And yes, there’s a certain slyness in his selection of motifs. But he’s helped most of all by a sure feeling for qualities of light and composition. “Getting Ready” depicts a woman hoisting her bare leg onto a bench to (perhaps) adjust her garter, a gesture that in an Eric Fischl painting would hint darkly at sleazy, unknown events, or in a painting by the nineteenth-century academician William Bouguereau would amount to pure fluff. Heyer, however, seems uninterested in such titillations; there’s a degree of innocence here, evidenced by an almost stately attention to the visual facts of the scene. His modeling and perspective are awkward, but Heyer’s sure feeling for the weight of light locates everything convincingly. Warm fleshtones set off the figure to just the right extent from the surrounding, cooler walls; the figure’s shadow–though unlikely in its shape–turns the rich red of the floor to a persuasive dark of unnamable hue. Subtle colors neatly catch the illumination, direct and reflected, on a nearby desk.
Heyer’s experience shows in the way he applies such insights to a wide variety of subjects, from landscapes to seascapes to interior scenes. Some even depict actual scenes from Greenpoint, Brooklyn; these have exactly the same ungainly authenticity as other images, leaving one to marvel at this balancing act between innocent perception and sophisticated synthesis.
At some points, the high-wire act falls a little flat: the midnight blues and spindly trees of “Going to Market” make the indebtedness to Henri Rousseau all too explicit. Still, such are Heyer’s powers that a kooky scene of a family, lined up for a group portrait with a huge lion standing peaceably in their midst, seems neither jokey nor affected. Similarly, his images of city nightlife don’t seem at all like commentaries on immoral culture—nor on our over-moralizing about it. The subjects, like the artist, seem to be simply preoccupied with tasks at hand.
These small, intriguing paintings show that clumsy rendering doesn’t compromise an image’s basic truthfulness. Of course, the reverse is also true; all the savoir-faire in the world won’t disguise a lack of conviction. Even in 2005, a discrete language of painting remains alive and accessible.