Jeanne Heifetz‘s art has evolved from weaving and fiber early on to drawing and painting later on. While her previous body of work has typically derived from a process of material exploration, the impetus for her more recent work has been prompted by concept. As Heifetz puts it, “in spite of herself,” after the election it can also be seen as politicized. She was recently awarded a LABA fellowship for 2018-2019 at the 14th Street Y, where she will study ancient Jewish texts on a given theme with other artists of different disciplines. In this interview for Art Spiel Jeanne Heifetz talks about her art, ideas, and projects.
AS: What brought you to art?
Jeanne Heifetz: I came to art by a pretty roundabout route, although I would say I’ve been an object maker for most of my life. As you know, when it’s a noun, my last name in Hebrew means ‘a created object,’ so maybe I didn’t have a choice. I started weaving at fourteen (and before that had tried pottery, silversmithing, stained glass, and batik). I wove all through college and grad school, even though I was studying English. I had a yearlong residency as a writer, worked at several magazines as a researcher and editor, and published a couple of books, but was also always weaving, and ultimately decided to abandon writing and weave full time.
When it’s a verb, my last name means ‘to wish for, to desire,’ and perhaps my sublimated desire all along was to spend my days as a maker. For many years I made functional work (I wove rugs), but around 2007 my weaving began to mutate. I started experimenting with less traditional materials and applying textile techniques to metal and glass. Within a year or two I found myself crossing over to the art side of the art-craft divide. Ironically, of course, right about the time I left fiber behind, it became the hottest thing in the art world.
AS: It seems that you work in series. What prompted Mottainai?
Jeanne Heifetz: Well, you can immediately see a connection to my fiber past. The visual inspiration for Mottainai came from the repeatedly patched Japanese indigo boro textiles, which I find both moving and beautiful. Mottainai is one of a several series I’ve done that are made from the slow accretion of small units. It’s the kind of laborious work people often tell me “must be meditative.” All I can say to that is they’re obviously not the ones doing it. Because the work is so labor intensive, I loved titling the series after the Japanese concept of mottainai, which refers both to not wasting material objects (like the patched utilitarian boro textiles) and to not wasting time.
AS: I love the quotes related to your There is No Road series – “[W]ayfarer, there is no road, the road is made by walking,” by Antonio Machado, “Proverbs and Songs 29”. There seem to be a systematic process behind this series, based perhaps on some improvisation and organic growth – altogether underscoring chance and order. What were your thoughts, and can you tell me more about the process in context of your other work?
Jeanne Heifetz: Yes, “ordered chance” would be a great way to describe the series. There Is No Road is about giving up control and letting the composition develop organically. After years of working on a loom, I had begun to chafe against the restrictive nature of weaving. My design decisions were front-loaded: once I chose a pattern and set up the loom, I was really just executing a predetermined plan. I longed to move into a kind of work that involved more decisions per unit of time to keep my synapses engaged. And yet I’ve always been somewhat decision-averse. I wasn’t ready for complete freedom. This series represents my hybrid solution: lots of decisions to make, but within the comforting limits of a set of rules, in this case, rules derived from nature that govern the growth of foams and sponges.
It was a challenge to allow the composition to meander. I did eventually do some pieces in the series where I had an overall compositional plan, but the ‘road’ still evolved through the process of drawing. As in Mottainai, I was working in ink, so there was no going backward, and sometimes my plan had to change utterly. In a number of drawings in this series I was interested in creating voids in the field that were deliberately ambiguous: was the field compressing the void, or the void expanding into the field? In a few of these pieces in the course of drawing, the field really would take over and swallow what I had originally intended to be voids.
AS: In your text for “Working the Line” you mention that in this series you are playing along the continuum of gesture and geometry. Can you elaborate on that?
Jeanne Heifetz: As a weaver, unless you make tapestries, you’re locked into the grid of warp and weft. So I guess it’s a good thing I love geometry. But I also knew that when I left the enforced grid of the loom I could easily allow the perennial appeal of geometry to become a shield against any sort of spontaneity. In Working the Line I pushed myself to play with gesture and to respond to the figuration of the stone substrate.
AS: Speaking of geometry, let’s talk about Geometry of Hope – you describe it as a tribute to the postwar Latin-American artists whose work was shown together under that title. Can you tell me about the genesis and process related to this body of work?
Jeanne Heifetz: A couple of things came together in that series. I had already been making sculptural work with glass rods, which I acid-etched and then wove with coated copper or coated silver wire. I discovered that I could get very thin glass rods (2mm), which suggested the possibility of using the rods as sketch lines. I had seen the Gego show at the Drawing Center and was completely captivated by her use of shadow in the Drawings without Paper. I had a vision of the glass rods attached to a translucent surface, so that they could both create a dimensional ‘drawing’ and cast a shadow drawing (or multiple drawings, depending on the lighting) on the wall.
At around the same time, I saw the Geometry of Hope show at the Grey Art Gallery. The curators of that show wrote that the title “brings together … two central ideas in this history: a mathematical and precise visual language on the one hand and a utopian belief in progress and idealism on the other. The title contrasts with the term ‘The Geometry of Fear,’ coined by Herbert Read in 1952 to describe the atmosphere of anxiety in postwar British art. The Latin American artists in this exhibition believed in art’s ability to change the world through reason, order, and progress.”
I began working on the series in 2008, at the same time that I was organizing weekly out-of-state volunteer trips for Brooklyn for Barack. After the years of fear we’d experienced under the Bush administration, hope was our watchword in those days. We actually believed in reason, order, and progress. Shocking, right?
AS: It may be justified to say that you are an “activist,” or at least, strongly engaged with political and social issues. In what way (if any) is this aspect in your life related to your art?
Jeanne Heifetz: Both are central to who I am. Sometimes there’s an easy overlap between the two worlds. I’ve helped organize a lot of volunteer projects that relate to the arts: 40 arts workshops for children in Brooklyn’s Haitian community whose families had been affected by the 2010 earthquake; refurbishing a public school art room with donated supplies and labor; painting a large outdoor mural at a public school (designed by the students); or running art supply drives for public schools.
Most New Yorkers don’t realize that private schools toss a crazy amount of partially used art supplies each spring. I’ve helped coordinate their transfer to public schools that can use them. And on the website I put together after the 2016 election (www.wearenewyorkvalues.org) I certainly made sure there was a category of Arts for Social Justice! But I am not in the least drawn to making political art. My current series turned political in spite of me after the election, when Jewish cemeteries once again became playgrounds for right-wing vandals with spray cans.
AS: Tell me about your latest series, Pre-Occupied.
Jeanne Heifetz: Pre-Occupied is about my pre-occupation with dying – really with the fear of death. I started the series after seeing Doris Salcedo’s show at the Guggenheim in the fall of 2015. Salcedo makes very beautiful work about very scary subjects – in her case, state-sponsored violence and its aftermath – that manages not to be didactic. I left that show wondering about the obligation of the artist to confront things that terrify us. Up to that point, my starting point had always been either a response to materials or a commitment to a particular process, so it was a big shift for me to start a series conceptually and then look for the materials and the visual language.
For the materials, I’ve hewn pretty close to the earth and the body: iron oxide, graphite, papers that are traditionally used for genealogy charts. As for the language, I happened to have inherited eight cemetery plots from my grandfather, which came with a map. I started thinking about the formal structure of the cemetery plan, and the way we use cemeteries as a way to impose a sense of order and beauty on something most of us (I assume I’m not alone) are terrified by. I started doing research both online and in libraries, and discovered what a startling range of shapes and layouts cemeteries can have. These happen all to be Jewish cemeteries because I needed them to be places I could be buried, and even though I’m not observant, I find the iconography of Christian tombstones and monuments completely alienating. Since Jews were rarely going to be given choice pieces of land to bury their dead, the peculiar shapes were likely dictated by the topographical oddities of whatever less-than-desirable land they were allowed to own.
AS: It seems that albeit abstracted, Pre-Occupied is the most narrative of your artwork so far. What’s your take on that?
Jeanne Heifetz: Oh, absolutely. This is by far the most narrative and most personal work I’ve done, in that it grew out of my deep – and occasionally paralyzing — terror of dying. It’s abstract only because I need death to remain an abstraction in order to function. I also love the fact that people responded to the work as having narrative content even before they knew the subject matter.
When I first posted the images of the work on Facebook, I didn’t explain anything other than that it was a new series and what the materials were. People left comments like: “from another realm” or “like maps of ancient sites, redolent of ritual and secrets” or “’brownprint’ for a basilica…or catacombs” or “transformation of paper (with its own mystical qualities) into a lead-and-hide floor plan of an architectural (underground?) structure. Whether halls or walls the linear elements align with the notion of a sacred space.” Granted, I have some pretty damn perceptive friends, but it was still stunning to me how close they got to the source without being told a word.
AS: You are also a writer and curator. Tell me a bit about these aspects and how they relate to your art making.
Jeanne Heifetz: I’m not a writer. I used to be a writer but I’ve been in recovery for a long time. I loved doing the research for my books, but I hated writing. I still work as an editor and I’m always happy to tinker with someone else’s words. I do love curating. For years, I’ve used Facebook as a place to share artwork I discover and am excited by. I posted new finds every day up until the election in 2016. After that it took quite a while to feel like it was okay to post about art and not just about resistance.
Based on those Facebook posts, Mary Judge, founder of the late, great Schema Projects, took a chance that I might be able to curate in the real world. I curated three shows in her wonderful space, and then was invited to curate a show for Slow Art Day at the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery, and a show of Emily Hass’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art. Post-election, the energy that went into curating has gone into political work, and I don’t know when it will make sense to return to it.
AS: What are you working on now?
Jeanne Heifetz: I was extremely lucky to be awarded a LABA fellowship for 2018-2019 at the 14th Street Y. LABA brings together a dozen or so artists of different disciplines who are all making work related to a particular theme, and we study ancient Jewish texts on that theme. This year’s theme is Life and Death, so I will be working on a new group of cemetery drawings that are at the scale of the individual plots and are much wilder and less orderly than the ones I’ve been doing up to now.
I’ve only recently learned that Jews had many beliefs about the afterlife that were swept away by the Enlightenment. In some of these visions, the afterlife was quite a busy place, and the dead also had a lot of agency to make trouble in our lives. I love the idea that these new drawings will perhaps convey a more chaotic world underlying the rational order of the maps I’ve been drawing thus far. I also plan to do a very large ‘exploded’ drawing of a particular cemetery that viewers will be able to walk through that will probably be shown in 2019 or 2020.