Studio Visit With Heidi Brueckner (2020)

Juror René de Guzman’s First Choice in Sanctuary Exhibit

I began our virtual interview on FaceTime and had Heidi’s website up on my computer so we could talk about her work in lieu of being physically in her studio.  My first impression was that Heidi is a very informed artist, she obviously draws from a multiplicity of resources that influence her, both Western and Eastern.  I also realized very quickly that she is what I call a “painter’s painter,” that is, a painter who is thoroughly devoted to the materials and techniques of her craft.  What follows are excerpts from our two-hour-long discussion and my attempt to edit it down to a meaningful interview.

You’re a California native but you studied at both the Goethe Institute and the University of Heidelberg?

Yeah, it was probably the best year of my life.  I mostly studied the German language and then some art but I was also able to travel around Europe.  I grew up in Claremont, in Southern California, but I don’t feel attached to it anymore.  I went back a few years ago and I didn’t feel connected to the place anymore.  It was weird.

So when I was thinking about the theme of sanctuary I also thought of home and how people think of home.  Maybe we can talk about your piece in the show, Tween (Anika).

Tween (Anika), 56″ x 30″, oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas

It’s my daughter.  She’s twelve going on thirteen.  Tween is this new word meaning you’re somewhere between being a kid and a teenager.  And Anika is the name of a character from a series of Swedish books.  But it is also a Sanskrit word (“Anika or Anikha or Aneeka means graceful, brilliance or sweet-faced and is derived from the Sanskrit word Aneeka (अनीक), which literally means collection, group, mass, army, face, or appearance. Anika can also refer to splendor, edge, or point.” Wikipedia).  

So combined it might mean a sweet kid?  Is there any connection between the show’s theme and the painting you entered in the exhibit?

Well, I’ve been getting back into portraiture.  It did kind of coincide with the pandemic and not being able to see people.  That’s part of it.  You have to rely on your home and your family, more than ever right now.  And your home is your sanctuary.

Can you talk a little bit about process?

I think of myself primarily as an oil painter, even though I use acrylics and other mediums like paper and fabric or whatever.  I will always be an oil painter.  I’m a professor of art and I usually give my students the choice of what they want to do but I always tell them that 75% of the greatest painters work in oil and that usually gets them to try it!  (“Good for you!”)

How do you begin a painting?

It depends on what kind of thing I’m doing.  I recently did a series of monsters as part of an alphabet book and those were all very planned and sketched.  But with the portraits, they are usually just right to the canvas.  I sometimes think about the composition in drawings but it’s never set in stone until I get to the canvas and then it just evolves.  I like to paint people very big.

Do you start with the background?  Do you sketch the figure in?

For this one (Tween (Anika)) I had a vision of her standing in front of a Moroccan cabinet I have and so I wanted to use the paper painted with all the detail to give that feeling.  I began in acrylic with a dark ground, then put the paper on, and then did some resists to get some random kind of drifts (you might notice some of that on the floor).  Then I very quickly sketched the figure and painted in the figure with oil.

So the portraits are very different from the rest of your work.  They’re friendly whereas your other work is a bit sinister or dark.  When you’re doing portraits of friends and family, there is a sort of dilemma of how psychological you render them.  You have your own style and it is how you paint, it is all, as it were, in the same language.  Two of your self-portraits are a bit more in keeping with the rest of your work.

Self-Portrait with Peeling Wallpaper, 22.5″ x 22.5″, oil on canvas

Yes!  The one with peeling wallpaper is secretly subtitled Portrait of a Serial Killer!  I loved the sort of idea of it being kinda creepy with that intense light.  I love German Expressionism and that sort of grittiness is something I guess I am sort of wired into.

Let’s go a little deeper.  In your “Other Narrative & Allegories” series, let’s look at the first one, The Four Little Pigs.  You’re painting big.  Although there is a bit of whimsy and humor in them, why are you so interested in the grotesque and sinister, the sort of macabre imagery?

The Four Little Pigs, 66.5″ x 54″, oil on canvas

It’s a good question and it’s funny because I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself that.  I guess I’ve always been the observer in social situations and I’m fascinated by personality types and archetypes and for me that darkness tends to feel more profound for me often times because I’m thinking about things on a deeper level.  Maybe it has something to do with being half German, it’s born in me.  Lucien Freud is someone I’ve always loved and looked at, that Germanic sort of sensibility, even though he wasn’t German.  I love people like Tom Waits who sing about the down and out and people in the gutter.  I’ve always been attracted to that sort of thing.  I’ve always been attracted to skeleton imagery.  I guess I’ve just always been fascinated with it; it has always been a part of me.  It’s something that makes me think.

Let’s talk about the symbols.  Looking at China Daydream I recognized those symbols that look like flames or waves maybe.

China Daydream (detail)

It came from when I was traveling in China, it was a piece of paper with that design on it.  I’m not sure what they are symbols of but I believe it is Tibetan.

You have a lot of both Western and Asian symbols in your work.  Have you traveled elsewhere in Asia?

Yes, I’ve been in Japan.  (Discussion about artists Robert Kushner and Masami Teraoka).  My grandmother grew up in Japan.  I got to see a lot of awesome contemporary art in Japan.

You said you were impressed with the German Expressionists.  Which ones in particular?

Oh, well, as I mentioned I consider Lucian Freud of that realm although he is not German or of the period.  The same with (Anselm) Keifer.  But I love Otto Dix and Max Beckman.  And others.  But I also love Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.  I like the darkness of Schiele and the decorativeness of Klimt.

The word “decorative” often carries a sort of negative connotation in the arts.

Yes, but people have kinda come around.  Look at Joan Brown’s work, it’s highly decorative.  A lot of them are women.  I’ve done a whole series of abstracts based on non-Western symbolism and the entire world, except for this sort of European idea, is based on decorating.  I was involved with the Crochet Coral Reef project and it was mind-bending because it was so craft oriented.  I loved the idea of bringing a woman’s craft into the installation mode and also having that political statement.  So I think there is a lot of good stuff going on with what might be considered craft.

Let’s talk about your “The Arcana Shuffle” series.  Tell me about The Martyr.

The Martyr, 90″ x 40″, oil & nails on canvas

That series is based on the concept of Tarot cards.  It really fits in with my love of allegory.  The Martyr was based on the “Hanged Man” card.  He’s supposed to be this sympathetic man but he kind of gets himself into trouble and he gets hanged.  Carl Jung wrote about Tarot cards.  My spin was a different idea.  The hooks through his chest reference an ancient Native American ritual.  So this guy though, he’s a modern-day guy, fetishized with piercings and stuff and, for me, I just always thought it was sort of stealing from other cultures and not really understanding it.  So his being is saying “I’m doing all these things to me and it’s cool and I’ve got an insight into life that none of you do,” and so it is a kind of selfish way of thinking about things.  So, for me, that is who he is.  Anyway, I painted that maybe twenty years ago and I was kind of an angry person at that time!  (laughter)

Let’s talk about your abstracts.

Well, it started with this idea of decoration, how it was basically the second class citizen in the art world.  It never felt to me that it was something “less than.”  All these cultures around the world had decoration but it would have meaning.  The contemporary art world is so much about meaning and concept, it is so conceptual.  My idea was to work with these cultural forms of decoration and understand what they all meant and to educate myself about non-western art.  I did it on a sabbatical.  The one titled Africa was more about the African diaspora and had a lot to do with African American art from the South, quilt making and making do with found objects.

Africa, 48″ x 24″, oil, acrylic & mixed media on canvas

Can we talk about the piece titled The Middle East?  

A lot of it was inspired by the ceramic tile work.  (A discussion of the process followed.  Despite the precise graphic imagery, she did the painting freehand without taping.). I can get a little OCD about details!  And sometimes that get’s the better of me and in this piece, I indulged my OCD.

The Middle East, 48″ x 24″, oil and acrylic on canvas

Let’s talk about your collage.  The first one is so different from everything else you’ve done.  It’s almost monochromatic.  It’s titled Fun With GMO #2.

It’s on canvas and very layered and made of acrylic paint, found images, corrugated cardboard, foil, decorative paper, screen mesh, some plastic pieces from a torn apart keyboard, and some photocopied drawings of mine.  It was highly experimental and all of the collages are very intuitive.  It’s very liberating for me.  (We had a discussion about those painters who are more controlled and structured in contrast to those who are more spontaneous and intuitive.).  That’s actually why, like in my recent portraits, I’ve been trying to leave things unfinished or awkward in them because I just really admire that.  I like that “finishing off” in the viewer’s head that you have to do.  So it’s been so interesting to do, to make yourself do the wrong perspective for example.

Fun With GMOs, #2, 18″ x 24″, mixed media collage on canvas

Tell me about The Nest.

So the big blue thing was a ball that was given to my children when they were little but they never liked it.  (“Oh, so it is three dimensional?” I asked.  “It’s got a sort of edge to it.  What is it?  A creature?  Some sort of sci-fi thing?”). The funny thing is my kids would not go near that ball.  (Laughter.). 

Nest, 7″ x 7.75″, mixed media collage on board

Do you ever go back to a finished work and rework it or revisit it?

Ah, no.  I mean, when I’m done I’m done.  If it isn’t working, at some point I just have to move on.

How many times do you fail?

When I was a young painter I failed a lot.  Now I don’t fail that much.  It’s sort of a question.  Someone could think it is a failed painting when I don’t.  But I guess I am more in the vein of trying to make it work.

Is there something you’d like to tell me or talk about that we haven’t touched on?

I guess I would say that I find the macabre element really beautiful and I think I am really interested in the juxtaposition of things that are sort of macabre but also really beautiful at the same time and I love that sort of tension.  I love something that’s really gorgeous but there’s also some kind of a dark feeling to it, a dark theme that is maybe allegorical in nature.  To me that’s always been a sort of interesting tightrope to walk.  (We had a discussion about the thought that there is something sad in everything that is beautiful as all things, tangible and otherwise, are transient).  So my work may sometimes seem as very “dark” but I don’t really think of it that way but, rather, that it is just a part of life.

Well, I really admire you and your work for tackling real things “dead on” and not in a superficial way.