Debbie Hesse: Spatial Paintings

Debbie Hesse, Laboratory for Healing, 2018, Immersive installation at Yale West Campus, Photo Courtesy of Graham Hebel, Artspace

Debbie Hesse, the CT based artist, makes plexiglass sculptural constructions and video installations. Her sculptural installations, or “spatial paintings” are typically made of multiple planar Plexiglas and wood cutout shapes layered to create complex shapes which bring her ideas to life through light and color.

Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making things. At age ten I turned my bedroom into a studio. As a tween, I took art classes with the Whedons, a husband/wife team who ran an art atelier in their basement and taught us etching as they were learning it themselves. We were taught complex etching and printing processes- aquatinting, spit biting, soft ground, viscosity printing with multiple color rollers (a technique started by Stanley William Hayter).

The Whedons didn’t adhere to a conventional hierarchy of learning found in most art schools and universities and created a unique, safe place to learn and grow. I lived for these Saturday art classes and realize now how lucky I was to have early mentors and role models. As a teenager I also studied a bit at the Art Students League and spent a lot of time at museums.

You are coming from a printmaking background which seems to have an important impact on your work across media. Can you elaborate on how printmaking techniques have informed your approach to sculptural installations?

I was drawn to printmaking early in college and my obsession with the medium took me to New Mexico where I studied lithography and painting supplemented by a curatorial fellowship at Tamarind Institute of Lithography. Printmaking is inherently a communal activity and the atelier is a bustling hive of creative activity. The medium, with all its rules, chemistry and technique allows for an infinite possibility of outcomes. Working with separate layers, ordering plates, combining colors and transparency, adjusting pressure and inking and wiping plates offered creative pathways to bring images to life combining serendipity with careful planning and execution.

My current sculptural constructions (or spatial paintings) are also created from multiple planar Plexiglas and wood cutout shapes layered to create complex forms. As in printmaking, I work on multiple, flat sections that can be combined and layered into numerous configurations. Although I haven’t been a printmaker for many years I have brought a printmakers sensibility to more direct approaches. Creating wall constructions and video based installations are ways for me to spatially layer ideas and forms by using light and color as my vehicle.

Debbie Hesse, Portrait of artist in her work, 2019, Plexiglas wall sculpture, photo courtesy of Rashmi Talpade

Let’s take a closer look at your recent Wall Sculptures from 2017 to 2020. I am very drawn to Severed and Microburst, for instance. What can you tell me about the genesis of these pieces – the idea, material, technique?

Severed and Microburst are recent works created during Pandemic and before my recent spinal fusion surgery. Both were part of ODETTA Gallery’s fall exhibition Pandemic Proof on Artsy. During this creative window, I allowed myself space to experiment incorporating a new painterly process and language into my work. On a practical note- I wasn’t allowed to lift anything and needed to do something that did not involve any heavy moving as I had done previously. I practiced acrylic paint pours and fluid techniques searching for novel ways to echo natural processes and phenomena into my mostly synthetic constructions.

When these individual painterly components were layered into wall sculptures, a new richness and complexity emerged with elemental forms that evoked unfamiliar terrains as well as watery forms –referencing landmasses, deep seas, cell structures and celestial formations. Both Microburst and Severed comprise layered, shaped Plexiglas forms based on specific natural specimens. I work on each section separately without considering the complex interaction once combined. I adhere color gels, reflective Mylar and clear urethane to sections of the surface to achieve varied transparency and color shifts. While each planar section could be a stand-alone sculptural painting, I am mostly interested in what happens when multiple sections are layered spatially.

Debbie Hesse, Microburst, Plexiglas sculptural wall construction, ODETTA Gallery, 2020, approx 42 x 29 x 12”, photo courtesy of the artist

I project LED light through my pieces that cast virtual paintings on the wall from the layers of transparent colors. Essentially, I paint with light so each work captures a fleeting moment. When not lit, I think of these works as “sleeping”(like a computer in sleep mode) since the intricate virtual wall paintings dissolve, leaving only the object. I discovered that by back painting layers of bioluminescent paint I could create a diffuse glow, activating forms when in “sleep-mode” and extending the sense of otherworldliness.

You typically layer translucent and abstracted cellular forms made of cut Plexiglas planes as well as utilizing projection – both processes are about light, shadow, movement – all together suggesting organic forms. But not only. They can as comfortably resonate with maps, geological layers, or constellations.  Do you have a theme in mind? Can you elaborate on your process?

My overall body of artwork allows for a variety of entry points to explore universal ideas about light, energy, organic growth and spirituality. Works are fluid, shifting, adapting to different atmospheric conditions just like in life. I am inspired by natural phenomena and worlds I cannot see such as celestial and earthly black hole oceans, underwater canyons, microbial deep sea creatures that adapt and survive via bioluminescence and chemosynthesis. These hidden worlds provide revelations into our past and future. Referencing the vastness of these unknown realms, I seek parallels to these phenomena through my own material investigations.

Sway. Shift. Algae and Orange Wave are two earlier wall constructions that evoke both sea specimens as well as maps of real and imaginary land formations; they are meditations on states of being. In these works hidden passages emerge from the interaction between light and form confounding what is real and imagined, physical and virtual. These works reflect how we move seamlessly between the physical and virtual world in our daily life.

Debbie Hesse, Exhibition view of Formation, Mercy Gallery, Sway. Shift. Algae (lf), Orange Wave (rt), 2019, Sculptural wall construction, dimensions variable, courtesy of the artist

Your work ranges from relatively small to large, often made of modular pieces that coalesce into a cohesive whole. In Another Asterism, you seem to create a rhythmic flow by using wall mounted clusters. Can you address your approach to scale in this installation and what was your overall thought process?

I make light-based objects, installations and immersive video spaces working across a range of scales. Another Asterism was an installation at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT that was part of an exhibit Somewhere in the Sequence curated by David Borowski. I created six large wall constructions that were installed to meander and organically sweep across a large space. Individual sculptures readily combined into new configurations like constellations or cell colonies while maintaining their individuality. On closer inspection, each revealed hidden worlds projected within the layered Plexi structures.

In An Experimental Laboratory for Healing at Yale you collaborated with a sound artist and with your scientist husband to create a science-based art installation through a very personal starting point. What would you like to share about this project?

An Experimental Laboratory For Healing was a commissioned project for Artspace CWOS at Yale University West Campus. This funded project allowed me to completely transform a series of vacant office spaces into an immersive series of cells meant to metaphorically suggest the inner workings of the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. It was inspired by our daughter’s rare mitochondrial disorder that caused a metabolic dysfunction in energy production.

I have always collaborated with other artists but this was the first time that I collaborated with my husband on an art project. He interacted with the public, answered questions and diagrammed the Krebs cycle on an old overhead projector we found on site. His projected annotated diagrams acted as a conceptual overlay for my video and light sculptures to form a living installation that was aesthetic, healing and educational. We have discussed doing another collaboration but haven’t done so yet!

Debbie Hesse, An Experimental Laboratory for Healing, 2018, Immersive video installation, dimensions variable, photo courtesy of artist

You have been working as the director of programs in an art organization. That inherently creates an ongoing interaction with a community and perhaps a fertile ground for collaborative approaches. Can you think of two art projects that were derived by this communal facet of your work and what was your takeaway?

I have always combined studio work with community building and public connection through teaching, curating and instigating interactive projects that would generate community participation. As Director of Programs and Artistic Services at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven where I worked for 15 years I curated exhibitions and organized workshops that brought artists into diverse community spaces. Two projects- one local and one in South Korea exemplify projects of mine that involve community. In each observing nature, collecting specimens was integral to the creative process.

Sway. Shift. Sea Garden (Version 12.0) was a meandering community-enhanced synthetic art installation assembled from abstracted seaweed- inspired by forms at Vaiuso Farms. CT Greenhouse Growers. I suspended large cutout forms from greenhouse rafters, alongside hanging plant baskets hoping to spark a visual conversation about the relationship between agriculture and ocean farming. I worked with families and young adults at a local Community Dining Room and a program for independent living to engage the public in the creative process. We started out observing local seaweed specimens that I had collected and created seaweed pressing and drawings from them. We also made seaweed cyanotypes and digital collages to find connections between nature and art and they all helped me prepare large sections of the Plexiglas seaweed-inspired forms for the greenhouse installation.

I also created seaweed pressings with families as part of my artist residency at Hongti Art Center in Busan, South Korea. Seaweed farming is an ancient cultural practice in Korea and one of the reasons I went there. I conducted workshops at an Eco Museum where we combed the tidal zone to collect seaweed and brought them back to the museum to study them and make pressings, an activity much like the Victorian craft of flower pressing. I created an immersive video installation, Sway. Shift. Busan Version that wove together my experiences there from a traveller’s perspective. I combined colorful plastic market baskets culled from the open seafood markets that I strung together and hung vertically with underwater video projections to comment on rituals and cycles of food production, preparation and consumption.

Debbie Hesse, Sway. Shift. Busan Version, Hongti Art Center, 2015, Immersive video installation, dimensions variable, photo courtesy of the artist

Debbie Hesse, Sway. Shift. Busan Version, Hongti Art Center, 2015, Immersive video installation, dimensions variable, photo courtesy of the artist

Other collaborations include Geomorphic Tank, an ongoing creative platform for experimentation I initiated with artist friend, Rashmi Talpade. Through our contrasting vocabularies we created installations and prints that transformed mundane, recycled objects into spinning, hanging meteorite-like forms and other parallel universes.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: