Wednesday, May 24, 2006

More on Robert Heinecken (1931 - 2006)

After checking with the Art Institute, we have found Heinecken did not teach there, although he may have sat on a few critique panels. His wife, Joyce Neimanas was a professor of photography. Both artists were in the 2001 exhibition Contemporary Art & Celebrity Culture at the School’s Betty Rymer Gallery.

Robert HeineckenHeinecken’s work in the show was striking and of particular note. On view was a magazine intervention he had done in 1970. The series consisted of taking popular magazines and subtly screen-printing a single image on every page. The image was transparent and looked like it was showing through from the other side of the page. The altered magazines were then left in public, along with others in waiting rooms for instance. Unsuspecting readers would slowly become aware of the odd situation. And upon close examination realize what was going on. The image was of a soldier holding two severed heads. It was from the Vietnam War, which was still dragging on at the time.

This process led to a successful juxtaposition. Particular moments of knife twisting gallows humor are instances where the image is merged with an ad. One reads, “This is the way love is in 1970.” “A happy user of our waterproof eyeliner,” reads a Chanel spread covered with the vacant oozing stares of the dead.

Robert HeineckenThe gesture is so effective because it is done in a universal way. Heinecken did not pick and choose which pages to do, he did them all, with the same treatment. It is pure chance, he has only arranged the chance meeting of two images on a printed page. It was society and culture that made the cruel joke of commercial excess simultaneous and synonymous with death. The image of the soldier is at first unreal. It can’t actually be a man holding to severed heads, but it is. It seems like it must be a staged photo and the heads are props. This is like the few times you see actual straight on depiction of violent death. Oftentimes what a real severed hand looks like is closer to a B-movie rubber dummy with fake blood than a Hollywood special effect. The situation also works because it is not blatantly an American holding Vietnamese heads. (It actually appears to be a Viet Cong) The identities are obscured, so it reads as a generic image of violence in war. So it is not anti-American or anti-patriotic, it is not even necessarily anti-war. It is just factual. It happens to pertain to the Vietnam war because that was the war at the time, and that was where the image was from. But it is really just saying this, death, murder, this is also happening. Even though you are looking at cheap magazine, it is still happening. Everything else is inferred. A message can be pretty clearly gained, but it is the genius of Robert Heinecken’s approach to only set things up and not give us an answer. This is how good political art is done.

Robert HeineckenUnfortunately this not a historical relic of a bygone era. Instead, the act of merging images of war and consumerism has become more urgent, and made more disgustingly apropos.

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