Peter Heinemann: Bluebird
24 East 73rd Street
New York City
212 734 3600
April 8 to June 13, 2008
Despite the exhibition title, bluebirds appear in only two of the seven paintings in Peter Heinemann’s latest exhibition at Schlesinger. Far more evident are their pursuers: the three cats that frolic, groom and pounce through his quixotic canvases. Their half-comic, half-fearsome demeanor could sum up the tone of the artist’s own curious investigations in paint. The exhibition, Mr. Heinemann’s twelfth with the gallery, is presented in conjunction with Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects.
Compared to the brooding self-portraits that the artist painted for some 30 years, these recent paintings suggest domestic harmony – or perhaps something more like household rollicking, because on closer inspection they turn out to be far from tame. Heinemann’s intensity, always apparent in his incisive, schematized shapes and hues, now describe with awkward purposefulness the trappings of rustic life: still lifes of dry good scales, vases, and lawn ornaments, and outdoor scenes populated by bird feeders and flower gardens – and, most notably, by the cats which by turns resemble inert, furry spheres or rocketing pillows with lethal teeth.
Heinemann leans on a few modernist devices, such as simplified outlines, flattened, single-color backgrounds, and, occasionally, the combining of frontal and overhead views. These he employs, however, towards thoroughly original ends. In “Studio Still Life,” (2007) an array of ordinary objects – kerosene lamp, scale, and a life-size sculpture of a chicken – disport themselves across two small tables in a lively circulation of angles. Subtle rhymings soon become evident: the blade of a fan, mirroring the chicken’s tail; the tip of a cat’s ear passing the corner of a table; the tiny orange note of a distant cat – glimpsed through a window – echoing the chicken’s red comb.
Things get curiouser and curiouser in Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, with charm and threat mixed in equal proportions. In “Pink Tree & the Bluebird of Happiness” (2008), the same orange cat, now up-close, hurtles towards a bird, its leap measured inch for inch by a climbing vine of flowers. The tips of two sneakers at the canvas’ extreme lower edge indicate the presence of the artist, who proceeds to fix on his own targets. These include the odd, pink, shield-shaped tree facing us squarely in the mid-distance, its frontal impact matched by a square bird feeder framed by another tree trunk. Little clouds scoot above a woman in a remote field, while, a few canvas-inches away, a squirrel – equal in size because of its proximity to the viewer – shimmies up the birdfeeder’s pole.
Every domestic event in these paintings takes on aspects of the paranormal as Heinemann dissects it for pictorial possibilities. In “Prophet Pirate Poet” (2007), the mouth of a vase of daffodils on a table echoes the curling tail of a cat on the floor behind it. Curving flower stems play against the loops of the birdfeeder’s post and a lantern’s handle in “Summer Still Life” (2007). Heinemann’s colors support such conundrums throughout, giving weight to each visual pun. In this respect the images recall the arcane intensity of Arnold Friedman’s paintings, or perhaps the early work of Milton Avery, only charged through with a sly edginess.
Die-hard devotees of Bonnard or Matisse might wish for more climactic outcomes – for a gathering of these tensions towards a singular effect: the edification of an interior unified by a particular illumination, or the broad counterposing of interior and exterior light. But this is nitpicking; the artist’s affectionate mistrust of his world is contagious.
“Cement Chicken” (2007) strikes a high note, of a sort, with its reverberations of intersecting pursuits. Here the orange cat leaps towards an unseen object, while tiers of flowering plants arc behind like a succession of ocean waves – and in-between, a cat, a longitudinal stretching of yellow-gray fur, snares a hapless bluebird. Taking in the scene with impassive, beady-eyed curiosity is the chicken sculpture – and, one suspects, Mr. Heinemann too.