NEIL YOUNG SERIES
NEIL YOUNG SERIES
“This collection of creations draws on the music I have been a part of in my life. It takes the form of a series of painted assemblages reflecting the spirit of different times and stages of my musical journey. I am very pleased to present to you this series by the artist Jenice Heo.” -NEIL YOUNG
WE ARE ONLY WHAT WE FEEL: JENICE HEO’S NEIL YOUNG SERIES
Jenice Heo’s NEIL YOUNG SERIES of thirteen oil paintings on found objects and mixed media assemblages, though taking its inspiration from Neil Young’s music, makes no attempt to illustrate the musician’s songs. Instead, each work deftly illuminates the heart and soul of the man who sings them.
For many years, Heo and her husband, Gary Burden, have designed and created Young’s album and CD cover art. In 2010, in collaboration with Young himself, the three received a Grammy Award for their Art Direction and Design for Special Packaging on “Neil Young Archives Vol. 1”. Heo places her original painting Neil Letters on the top lid of the box, while the name “NEIL YOUNG", rendered in calligraphic, bold black brush strokes reminiscent of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, adorn each surface of it.
This exhibition represents Heo’s first solo gallery show, although to its viewers the visual sophistication, intelligence, and craftsmanship of her work will signal an artist who has been steadily developing her work for many years. The assemblages take their titles from Neil Young’s songs and present a patchwork portrait of this prolific musician and his expansive oeuvre.
Perhaps a newly created work of art serves as the most authentic response to an existing one, and in Heo’s synesthetic correlatives for Young’s music, viewers can hear the visual artist’s soul singing as well. In this exhibition, Heo mines her musical-inspired visions and distills them into gold. Indeed, as Young sings in “On the Way Home,” we are only what we feel.
The art of assemblage, whose list of historical practitioners include Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, and the Americans Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, and Robert Rauschenberg, involves transplanting objects from the every day world into works of art that stand explicitly separate from it. Heo acknowledges Berman and Rauschenberg as two strong influences. Assemblage intentionally brings into question the distinction between life and art, illusion and reality, and between two and three-dimensional space, while questioning the very essence of art making as an act of “privileged” originality. It is an issue that lies at the heart of the larger discussion of Modern art in general, and though artists may concede “there is nothing new under the sun,” they have held on to their conviction that they still have the power to make choices, and to strategically reconfigure what’s old differently. That conviction led to the establishment of collage and assemblage in the first place, and is also what also lays behind poet Ezra Pound’s dictum to artists to “Make it new.”
One might see Neil Young as a musical collagist of sorts, in the way in which he has revisioned some of his more tender hits, such as “Cowgirl in the Sand,” into hard-driving rock powerhouse versions. Both he and Heo in their respective work heed, meet and relish the challenge of “making it new.”
In her work Heo’s deep layering of paint and objects simultaneously reveals and conceals some of their aspects, while never allowing the viewers’ eyes to wander far from Young’s music. In so doing it engages the viewer in a process of visual excavation. Both pleasurable and challenging, such searching turns up (among other things) scraps and snippets of old newspapers, faded photographs, model electric trains and train tracks, aged book covers, small paintings within the larger ones, bird feathers, an antique headphone, and old forty five records that Heo has painted over dreamily.
What’s more, Heo has “secretly” buried other small objects in various places on different canvasses, both to ensure that something of her work remains hers and hers alone, but also so that as metaphorical detritus these emotionally potent objects might serve as a source of nourishment that, though invisible, nevertheless deepen and transform the works.
Heo’s often swirling, earthy, and soulful use of color either suggests or depicts the American flag, in part as an allusion to Young’s songs such as “Ohio,” and more broadly as a symbol for the era of the 60’s and its generation. Other pieces hold the dreamy, silver-tone streams of Heo’s moonlit-tinged oil paint, or the soft pewter-tones of autumn skies, and reposes in the kind of sensitivity that is both totally void of sentimentality and that finds its mirror image in the music of Neil Young.
Train of Love (30”x 40”), represents Heo’s first piece in the Neil Young Series, and one can see in it both a bouquet of formal strategies and meaningful metaphors that unites the entire exhibition. It depicts a boy on an old Lionel train set box proudly showing off his new Lionel electric train set, the toys, of course, made by the eponymous and iconic company, which Young now partially owns. The image not only draws the eye to the canvas’s center but, as the youngster spreads his arms to span three full boxcars, also leads to the picture’s periphery. There one encounters an affixed row of model train tracts, which blends seamlessly into the six old guitar strings in a transition carried off with great assurance. A Buffalo nickel, a small attached silver engraving of a Native American chief a in full headdress that trails two feathers, among other artifacts, round out Heo’s romantic serenade to Young and his childhood in addition to his life-long love of model electric trains.
Whereas the objects of her assemblages establish three-dimensional spaces, the lower right hand section of another piece, titled Where Is The Highway Tonight, works two-dimensionally. There a haunting old found photograph, taken it seems long ago from behind the front windshield of a moving car, shows a patch of what appears to be a desert road or two-lane highway receding into the night. It’s a haunting yet romantic image evoking Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road and the Beat Generation it inspired. The piece also speaks of Young’s love of cars, with the words “Speed Limit” painted in bold black letters above the large number fifteen. Does the painting attempt to slow time down, or does it ask viewers to take their time in taking it in? Such ambiguities enliven Heo’s art. Here and throughout the series, Heo works the paint itself into an almost trompe l’oeil aged patina, that would convince some that these works were made nearly a hundred years ago.
In Where Is The Highway Tonight, as well, the front hood grill of an old Chevrolet, with its immediately recognizable bulky bowtie emblem, crowns the top of the canvas, while a partially occluded weathered Chevrolet operator’s manual hides in the lower left corner of the picture. An 1890’s Crow Indian beaded belt (that the artist confesses she “borrowed” from her husband’s collection of Native American artifacts) establishes the left-hand border of the image, reminding viewers both of America’s too often forgotten first inhabitants. It also evokes the many images from the natural world in Neil Young’s songs.
Four smaller mixed-media assemblages round out this outstanding exhibition, each a densely layered and mysterious portrait of Young’s life. Hand with Radios, with its bottom row of old transistor radios, pays direct homage to Wallace Berman and his signature series of such radios, on which he superimposed an array of photographic images. In the piece’s foreground, Heo positions a hand, presumably Young’s, which projects forward, holding 8 playing cards in a fan, each serving as a Berman-like armature for a photograph or small painting of Young at different stages of his life. Swirling around these cards float pasted pages torn out of old notebooks full of Young’s writing, as well as a plethora of other minutiae, some of it discernable and some of it not, but all of it waiting to blossom anew.
Jenice Heo is an artist to watch.
-Andy Brumer, Pasadena, California September, 2012