In her book, “Under a White Sky,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert asks us to ponder an image of nature distorted, marred by industrial civilization. Opening on a day when the air-quality index in Chicago hovered around 200 (very unhealthy), as wildfire haze blanketed the upper Midwest, Robert Chase Heishman’s exhibition, “foliage (#576c43) and blue sky (#627a9d) for how long?,” on view at the University Club of Chicago, asks us to ponder the nature of images.
To this end, the objects in Heishman’s photographs have been carefully arranged relative to the forced perspective of his camera. More tableaux than still lifes, the arrangements create ambiguous and anamorphic images that play tricks, create doubts and question reality. With the playfulness of picture games like seek-and-finds, spot the differences puzzles and the rabbit-duck illusion, they entice and reward close study.
But what drew me to Heishman’s photographs is how much they remind me of paintings. Like a painter, his art is of the studio. And, I imagine him there diligently jumping between tableau and the viewfinder of his camera, making minute adjustments to the composition, shifting things ever so slightly in a process both spontaneous and precise, until he achieves a parallaxic balance that, when translated to an archival inkjet print, coax and beguile.
An anamorphic image can be of anything. The most famous example from art history might be the human skull in Hans Holbein the Younger’s, “The Ambassadors.” Heishman’s instinct, however, is to create illusions of inherently two-dimensional things like radials, stripes and grids. Made with tape, vinyl and railroad board, these visual structures collapse the space inside the picture wherein these very objects reside. This collapse stresses the flatness of the picture plane; a preoccupation of certain schools of painting since Modernism; a first step toward abstraction. Think: Cezanne, Cubism, Mondrian, Agnes Martin.
At the same time, they demonstrate, in a way few images do, how a photograph is, fundamentally, the record of light in three-dimensional space. My first thought when seeing the work was, “have these been photoshopped?” That they have not, (re)establishes the primacy of reality. Roland Barthes’ “referent.” What Susan Sontag means in her seminal text, “On Photography,” when she writes the photograph is a “trace,” direct like a “footprint,” a “material vestige,” a “piece of the world.” When the ability to capture, share and consume images instantaneously and continuously is nearly ubiquitous, what American critic David Levi Strauss calls “flow” (torrent might be a better word), the deliberateness, the disorienting formalism, the surprising spaciality, even performativity of Heishman’s photographs seems to separate his art from the everyday.
And, we needn’t imagine his process, for Heishman’s work can be divided into two categories: the larger prints (three in the main exhibition on the twelfth floor, two in the club’s seventh-floor Living Room) and the smaller pieces he describes as “footnotes.” Photomontages that, together, I think of more as a scrapbook, bringing disparate pieces of the world together.
There are the snapshots that disclose, in a sequence of behind-the-scenes images, how an anamorphic grid is made. There’s the curious pink rose and the “Photoshop farm,” Fast Clipping Path, out of Dhaka, Bangladesh; the subject of an experimental documentary called “Image Work” that Heishman is developing about digital images and the invisible labor embedded in their creation; one of many jobs, it’s worth noting, threatened by advances in A.I and machine learning. There’s also what appears to be plain old plastic bags, but are, in fact, jute-derived biodegradable plastic bag alternatives called “Sonali Bags,” invented by Dr. Mubarak Ahmed Khan. Inspired by Khan’s efforts to combat plastic pollution, Heishman provided the doctor with free product photography. Then there’s the pictures of the Amazon, site of colonial dispossession and deforestation that makes territorial, agricultural and urban grids of green foliage. There last year at the invitation of the artist, Brian Maguire, who himself was invited by the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), Heishman met with the Maraguá people and is working on a documentary scheduled to be released next year called, “Massacre do Rio Abacaxis,” about a brutal revenge killing at the hands of the Brazilian Military Police. Backing the “footnotes” are sun-faded railroad boards that call to mind photography’s quaint origins, a chemical reaction.
Amidst the striped confusion in “IMG (foliage #576c43 and blue sky #627a9d),” we see a branch of green plastic leaves and a blue-sky-patterned sweatshirt, but did you notice the color target? In conversation with the curator and author Stephanie Cristello at the opening, Heishman explained that the title of the show is informed by how ColorChecker, maker of a widely used color target, describes two colors in its chart: “foliage” and “blue sky.” Used by photographers to verify lightness, color accuracy and resolution, targets test how well an image reproduces reality. With polycrisis ever foregrounding our reality today, Heishman rightly asks how long we can deem these descriptions—or any representation—accurate. Grounded in the conceit that perspective is everything, Heishman’s work questions what we thought we knew, what we believe we saw, and how we picture the world and imagine its future.
Despite its pretense, the exhibition space at the University Club of Chicago, let’s be honest, is a glorified hallway. The Peninsula, where Heishman’s photographs hung this past winter, is a hotel lobby. How long, I wonder, until the serious galleries of this city take notice and do justice to this work by way of a proper exhibition?
Robert Chase Heishman’s “foliage (#576c43) and blue sky (#627a9d) for how long?” at University Club of Chicago, 76 East Monroe can be seen by appointment through August 9. Email Samantha Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (312)696.2209.