LOUISE HEARMAN: AGAINST THE GRAIN

October 14, 2016
Untitled #1118, 2005, oil on composition board, Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Michael Hawker, 2009
Untitled #1118, 2005, oil on composition board, Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Michael Hawker, 2009

I think I surrendered obediently to the secret laws which led me to form, as best as I could, and following my dream, the things into which I have put my entire being.[1]

Odilon Redon, To Myself

Like Des Esseintes, the antihero of Huysmans’s cult novel of 1884, Against the Grain (À rebours), Louise Hearman has grown accustomed to doing things her own way. She has no interest in the cliques and rituals of the Australian art scene. She is indifferent to trends and honours. She is not desperate to have her work included in group exhibitions. Not having Des Esseintes’s private fortune she would like to sell enough work to pay the bills, but beyond that she is happy to live exactly as she pleases, ignoring the pressures and anxieties that make artists so hungry for attention.

Hearman has become accustomed to people describing her work as “weird”. She accepts the term because she has no better definition to offer. In fact, she dislikes all categorisations, all attempts to contain her paintings within boundaries. Unlike those artists who seek safety in numbers, gathering themselves into schools and movements, Hearman is an individualist whose paintings are mysterious even to herself, her subjects the product of intuition not calculation. One feels that if she could explain her images there’d be no reason to put them down on canvas.

Although it’s dangerous to generalise it may be true that the best artists never wish to be classified. Titles such as Impressionism, Cubism or Fauvism were invented by critics in the most off-hand fashion. Picasso had no intention of starting a school, but when he began painting in a so-called Neoclassical style in the 1920s a small coterie of academic Cubists declared him a traitor to the movement.

Rather than be pigeon-holed, artists will often deny the most fundamental aspects of their work. Balthus argued there was nothing erotic about his paintings and that such claims were merely a product of the viewer’s own imaginings. Mark Rothko emphatically denied he was an abstract painter.

An artist such as Odilon Redon (1840-1916) whose work is routinely discussed in terms of the fantastic, the macabre, the enigmatic, the supernatural, was resistant to all these terms. In the margins of an article by his friend, Emile Bernard, Redon wrote: “The supernatural does not inspire me; I am content to contemplate the external world and life.”[2]

Much the same could be said for Hearman, whose fantastic, enigmatic paintings find their inspiration in the impressions she gleans from daily life. The difference between Hearman and Redon is that the latter did not have access to the Internet, which allows us to spend an increasing amount of time in the virtual world. It’s an open debate as to whether the ready availability of images (including the computer-generated images of the Hollywood blockbusters), tends to stimulate or stifle our imaginations, but for artists it provides access to a visual library without walls.

One of the paradoxes of the Internet age is that the need for information seems to have supplanted the role of imagination. People spend more time in art museums reading wall labels than looking at actual works. Public lectures are popular because they promise a magical entrée for those with no time (or inclination?) to linger in exhibitions or read books. For many viewers education has become more important than pleasure, but it is the kind of education that provides a mountain of data and very limited understanding.

This is a difficult environment for an artist such as Hearman, who never likes to discuss her paintings or the origins of her imagery. When asked why she has painted a floating disembodied head, a pristine snowy landscape, a dog’s face in the centre of a flower, a strange light in the sky, or a grisly close-up of a row of human teeth, her response is usually along the lines of: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

One imagines the artist could find reasons if she was inclined to do so, but all her instincts send her in the opposite direction. Even if Hearman could pinpoint the source of a motif, perhaps in one of her own photographs, a newspaper or a website, this tells us nothing valuable about the ‘meaning’ of the picture. She is vehemently opposed to idea that paintings might have fixed interpretations, or help advance some overarching agenda. Her philosophy is simple: “Beware the artist who can explain – usually at great length – what his or her work is all about!”

In Hearman’s case mere information won’t help us to appreciate her methods. Her images exist as pure visual experiences that address the viewer on an emotional, subconscious level. They can be disturbing, but also very beautiful. In many instances the line between beauty and ugliness, between dream and reality, is rendered permeable. One cannot even classify these works as ‘grotesque’ – a term that implies a kind of fascinating ugliness. The faces in many of Hearman’s paintings are straightforwardly attractive, but when they emerge from a smothering darkness with no body attached, they become otherworldly.

The same goes for animals, which she paints with the skill and affection of a great 19th century animalier such as Edwin Landseer. Yet where Landseer anthropomorphised his subjects, giving them human attributes, Hearman resists this sentimental impulse. Her immaculately rendered dogs, cats and parrots appear in the most unusual places. A cat’s face looms monstrously at the end of a road, a dog’s head floats in space beneath a tiny moon, a giant bird stands like a statue by the roadside.

Like certain Symbolists and Surrealists it is extremely important for Hearman that she paint with quasi-photographic precision. Her works gain their peculiar power from combining the technique of an realist with the free associations of a fantasist. The contradiction is both productive and unsettling because these precisely painted works are in many ways the antithesis of ‘realism’ – whether we are speaking in terms of a resemblance to the external world, or the exploration of a psychological truth.

Psychology is banished from Hearman’s pictures, as is allegory. Her works recall The critic, Albert Aurier’s distinction between the ideisme of the Symbolists and the idealisme of the Academy. The former, in the words of art historian Robert Goldwater, “sought for an expressive unit of form and meaning, the latter were content to have them remain parallel: the one was true symbolism, the other merely personification or allegory.”[3]

If one accepts that Hearman seeks an “expressive unit of form and meaning”, this puts her on the side of the Symbolists. If she remains an uncomfortable fit it is not only because Symbolism was an historical movement associated with the fin de siècle of the 1800s, it’s also because of the ambiguities the term generates. When one looks into the writings associated with the Symbolists every historian or theorist seems to have different ideas and a different terminology.

Where Aurier draws a distinction between “ideic” (referring to art founded in the realm of ideas) and “idealist” (by which he means a form of classicism) many of his peers and successors have characterised Symbolism as a form of “idealism” as opposed to the “naturalism” of the Impressionists. This is one of the few characteristics upon which everyone agrees: that Symbolism was a reaction to the perceived limitations of Impressionism.

The defenders of Impressionism hailed it as a more truthful way of depicting the natural world by capturing the fleeting impressions of light on the retina. It was perceptual rather than conceptual, intent on reproducing the scene that met the eye rather than the ideal forms favoured by academic artists and history painters.

Symbolism, which began as a literary movement, was critical of Impressionism’s formalist tendencies and the restrictions it placed on the artist’s imagination. The Impressionists would paint contemporary people at their leisure, or modern landscapes incorporating trains or factories. There were no mythical creatures, no historical flights-of-fancy; no attempts to find symbols that suggested a mood or an emotion. The Symbolists felt Impressionism was all surface, no depth. To Aurier it was straightforwardly a “variety of realism”.

“Ideic” is a word Aurier coined to describe Gauguin’s work. It suggests an art imbricated in the world of ideas, but this should not be confused with the way we have come to use the term “conceptual”. When Conceptual Art was born and christened in the late 1960s, it referred to work that aimed to dispense with the art object, remaining in the realm of pure thought. This was a logical, perhaps a final step in the Modernist endgame. In the years that followed, “conceptual” has come to be used in a much softer manner, referring to any work built around a framework of ideas.

The “idea” for Aurier was borrowed from Plato’s theory of forms, which posited an ideal but unknowable form for everything in the world. In the allegory of the cave we are held in chains, able to see only the shadows of these ideal forms flickering on a distant wall. It suggests the limitations of mere sensory perceptions.

Aurier argued that Gauguin’s painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel in front of an audience of Breton women, had transcended the Impressionist proccupation with observable reality and given us a scene that must be read with the eye of the mind.

Hearman’s work is “ideic” in its rejection of a naturalistic aesthetic. A head, a road, an animal, a landscape, a doorway, a tree, a leg – none of these images stands for anything else. They are not metaphors or fragments. Although it is tempting to read them as film stills cut from a larger narrative, this is probably no more than a mental habit derived from our experience of the cinema.

Hearman sees each image as complete unto itself, which also explains her preference for small scale. She is more concerned with the thing-in-itself rather than a making a statement. She stubbornly believes that an image should not require a large format to have an impact. It is as if she wants to create an ideal equivalence among her paintings, making it difficult to divide her oeuvre into major and minor works.

It is difficult to look at paintings in such a detached manner because the mind habitually searches for meaning. Like artists of a more abstract persuasion, Hearman would like us to approach painting in the way we appreciate music. It’s an idea we also find in Redon, who wrote: “My drawings inspire and cannot be defined. They do not determine anything. They place us, as music does, in the world of the ambiguous and the indeterminate.”[4]

Take away all the props that allow us to interpret a painting and assign it to a genre, and we are left with a body of work that seems almost indifferent to the viewer. If there were a great mystery being concealed one might call these paintings hermetic, but the truth is almost the opposite. Hearman believes people should be free to read their own stories into her pictures. She was delighted when someone told her they’d been to a lot of the places in her paintings. As she is unable to identify most of these locations, she thought they must have been to the same places in their dreams.[5]

The artist admits there is a dream-like quality to the way she works. “You wake up half-way through,” she says, “and wonder what you’ve been doing.”[6]

Hearman’s works have a natural sense of placement but she is the antithesis of a formalist. Her only guiding principle is to follow the flow of her imagination which – judging by the recurrence of certain motifs – has its own secret laws. Redon claimed to be merely following the laws of Nature, striving “to put the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible”[7] – and this could serve equally well as a description of Hearman’s approach.

Her paintings bring to light the scattered thoughts, memories and impressions that pass through her mind. She imposes no order on this material, and looks for no master narratives. She is as much conduit as creator. Her goal is to make these spectral images as concrete as possible. It is not enough for Hearman to merely suggest an object – she wants to depict it in perfect clarity, spotlit against a darkened backdrop. We emerge from Plato’s cave, flick a switch, and feel the shock of recognition.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and film critic for the Australian Financial Review

[1] Redon, Odilon, To Myself, (Trans. by Mira Jacob and Jeanne L. Wasserman), George Braziller, New York, 1979, p.7.

[2] Quoted in Dorra, Henri, ed., Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, California University Press, Berkeley, 1994, p. 57.

[3] Goldwater, Robert, Symbolism, Harper & Row, New York, 1979, p. 9. For Aurier’s original essay in full, Aurier, Albert, ‘Le symbolisme en peinture’ in Textes critiques 1889-1892: De l’impressionisme au symbolisme, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1995, pp. 26-39.

[4] Dorra, op. cit. p.55.

[5] Conversation with the artist, 2004

[6] McDonald, John, ‘Mistress of Epiphanies’, Australian Financial Review Colour Magazine, March 2004.

[7] Quoted by Markus Bernauer, in ‘Allies in Art: Odilon Redon, Joris-Karl Huysmans, nd Stéphane Mallarmé’, in Margret Stuffmann & Max Hollein eds. As in a Dream: Odilon Redon, Schirn Kunstalle Franfurt, Hatje Cantz, 2007, p.115