LSU MOA: A Conversation with "Semblance" artist, Heidi Hahn

LSU MOA curator, Courtney Taylor recently spoke to Semblance: The Public/Private/Shared Self artist, Heidi Hahn about her artistic process and the content of her paintings now on view at LSU Museum of Art.

CT: When I visited your studio in February 2019, you were finishing up the series Burn Out in Shredded Heaven. I think you were still working on several pieces at the same time. How many works do you have in process at one time?

HH: I usually like to work in a series, this can include up to fourteen paintings. I have all of them in my studio going at the same time, so I might move them around to think about the different connections they have to one another. Not all of them make it to the final viewing. Some survive and some are edged out to be re-purposed in some way.

CT: How does your process begin and then evolve into the layers upon layers of rich washes of color?

HH: My process begins with the surface, what kind of interaction do I want to have with the paint, what do I want it to look like. I usually take a big brush and kind of sketch out an image, some loose idea of what I think I might want. I then sort of cover up that initial sketch with some atmospheric washes of oil color. I’m trying to create environment and texture. Usually all this gets covered over as the painting progresses, maybe you can see a hint of the wash at the corners. I think adding all these layers is a way to build history and foundation so whatever wants to be there is supported.  

CT: You’ve suggested your colors can approach being "repellent." How does this sumptuousness or over-saturation relate idea of burn out or signal the inner worlds of women?

HH: I think saturation can turn repellent when it overwhelms the whole canvas. Like a strong color can consume an image so you don’t necessarily see what’s really going on with the content. I think I put a lot of hidden gestures in my paintings and somehow the idea of disharmony with the color acts like a masking of sorts. I think the bright colors of that series bleached out specifics and it was in this way that I could talk about an inner dialogue, a state of mind. The reality of this work could not have a pinpoint, something tangible and I think the way the color moves the eye around and disorientates supports that.

CT: You've called your figures "residues," and I see the figures a "sign" pointing us to the idea of women. What are your strategies of representing the female form as sexually and emotionally unavailable—or rather available to themselves only?

HH: I do think the women in my work have a way of escaping definition or specificity. I wanted to create a generic idea of femininity, one that was probably relatable and accessible to most women. So, it is recognizable but unknown. I think by making them appear looser and malleable in terms of how they are painted helps out with that idea.

CT: You set up women in public voids—looking into phones, surrounded by retail cases, and staring in to space. Can you discuss the intentional disconnect between the suggested representational narrative and the emotional depth signaled through your painterly language?

HH: The paint is always a seduction tool for me because it provides a tangible sensuality. These women are not connected to the viewer, but the paint is, and therein lies the tension. I’m interested in that tension providing the schism, and that is the thing you can connect to. We all have this idea of an inner and outer voice and I think my paintings want to express the inner, but obviously I provide an outer source in which to enter, which is the paint’s materiality. 

CT: There's a tension between the public spaces and the private, inner worlds—both of which are ambiguous and remain unknown to the viewer. Why is it important that the viewer sit with these unknown inner worlds of women?

HH: I think it’s important to see the banality of inaction, to not be an active participant in the gaze allows a certain kind of freedom. I think the women in my paintings have a freedom from the traditional terms of a classical trajectory in painting where women are viewed as objects or erotic fixations, I think it is important to see them removed from that pose. I think the work validates an inner world because it refuses to participate in the confines of a classical one and the paint handling supports that freedom.

Hahn’s work is now on view in Semblance: The Public/Private/Shared Self at the LSU Museum of Art until October 6th.

September 19, 2019