It’s been almost two weeks since I got a look at Shelley Heffler in her studio, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what to make of her. When I think about her, I picture us sitting in her studio; one of her paintings was on the wall across from me and I couldn’t help but look at it from time to time as we talked. It’s ‘No Boots On The Ground,’ part of her ‘Maps’ series.
Shelley’s studio is a room on the second floor of the Beacon Arts building on La Brea. She’s got ‘Altered Paintings’ hanging in a hallway, works that used to be two-dimensional paintings that she has folded and crumpled and altered, for lack of a better word, to give them more depth and physical features.
The artist herself is an introvert. She and I have that in common. So hanging out in her studio is super fun! She’s talking about where she’s traveled and the work she’s done and her sentences tumble out and switch into other sentences halfway through. She’s used to being alone in her workshop, thinking about her work and creating her work and reshaping her work and it almost sounds like she’s working out more ideas as she talks about them. It’s like hearing key changes in a jazz tune.
“Maps have always been a way of escape for me,” she says. I’d been glancing over at ‘No Boots On The Ground’ and itching to ask her about it. Shelley grew up in the Bronx and as a kid, she’d get her hands on an atlas, and later on after studying it, she’d head out into the city and discover the museums and galleries that were otherwise just marks on a page. And then she’d go find another page, in another atlas, with more marks, and go to more places.
“There’s this vast world out there, and maps opened up the world for me,” she says. Decades later, they’re taking over her studio. She asks me what I think of ‘No Boots,’ and as I say I like the color arrangement, her eyes whip from the painting to me, then back to the painting, and she’s absorbed in thought. ‘No Boots’ isn’t a map of a particular place, and it’s got that dripped aspect that removes the strictness you’d find in the demarcations of an atlas. But the dripping adds something else, a dynamic and kinetic note. It’s in her lines, her blocks of color, and her wiry grids. When I look at this painting I feel like action is going on in it. There’s such a sense of movement that I expect to turn away and look back and see that colors have shifted and spaces have changed.
“She has a very keen color sense that draws you in, and then you want to keep exploring all the textures and subtle techniques that seem to hover between abstraction and something recognizable,” said Christine Rasmussen, a painter who came to Los Angeles and befriended Shelley last year.
It’s a four-foot wide painting, and it occurs to me that dripping all the lines and blocks in this grid so precisely must be meticulous, painstaking work. When I imagine Shelley very carefully spilling these lines onto the canvas, I begin to appreciate how much thoughtfulness and physical technique goes into this work.
So when I look at the ‘Branching Out,’ an altered painting, there are parts of that technique that I can’t see. It used to be one of her Maps series. She had made a few of them when, in autumn 2013, Inglewood held an Open Studios event, where the general public is invited to traipse up into your studio; people told her that her works looked like maps. Et voila!
Now that ‘Branching Out’ is altered, I’d have to hunch down or crane my neck to see around the ridges and canyons Shelley formed with her crumpling. And some of it was once visible but is now tucked away in shadow, forever. For a moment, I’m overcome with sorrow over this.
“There’s this idea about the preciousness of a painting. I don’t care about that,” Shelley said. “Deconstruct it!”
“Painting flat, you can create the illusion of texture. I could create those topographical features with lines on a flat painting. But I like the physicality of the work to be in your face. I like the idea of shaping and forming things, creating a hybrid. It’s not like when someone makes a sculpture and then paints on that. I want something where the painting and sculpture are inseparable from each other,” Shelley says.
Shelley’s newest series, “Anthropocene,” takes the maplike visual motif from earlier works and pans out, so instead of looking at a city blocks, you’re looking at continents, oceans, and weather patterns. And going further, she imposes patterns that evoke the sense of an electronic camera, over the map.
She’s got two of these hanging at the new SOLA Gallery, 3718 West Slauson Blvd for an exhibition titled “Fresh,” which opened March 4. I spotted Shelley’s works against the wall right away. They’re not as dramatic as the Maps series. She has consciously tried for a new look in her works, using different techniques and asking the viewer different questions about art.
“They’re not based in geographic reality,” said Peter Frank, associate editor at Fabrik. “But they point at one.”
“Artists have a body of work, so that people can look for consistency. But I like challenging myself with different materials and newer techniques I haven’t seen before.”
“We usually think of topographical maps as bird’s eye view, but [Above, Below, and Beyond] makes me question that, especially with the shapes that make it look like several “rivers” are coming together and sort of spiraling or morphing into something else,” Rasmussen said.
The elements and their borders are softer, the contours rounded and less abrupt. Yet you can still see the same sense of surging dynamism and energy. And the tension of imposing man-made strictness on loose, surging natural formations; the seas, the clouds, and the sandy masses dominating the map. Look away and it might change at any moment!