Photo by Jack GouldAt a recent opening, someone asked me what I thought of the art.
"It's fun," I said and tried to end the conversation there because I really didn't like the questioner.
"Fun," he repeated, his lips curling at my philistine self. "But is it . . . important?"
Yes, he was a pretentious ass. And I find people who declare certain works "important" not only boorish but also dull. But his boorish, dull self got me thinking, and the very next time I was checking out galleries, I found myself declaiming the works therein to be . . . important.
You see, shortly before I walked away, my young friend had returned my charges of pretentiousness with a declaration that going purely on preference—like/dislike—was the most pretentious thing of all because then you're divorcing each canvas you see from the entire history of art and using only your own tastes as a barometer. What could be more pretentious than being guided by one's own sensibilities rather than what the art schools tell you? So when I was at Misfit #9 Gallery the very next day, being assaulted by the visual screams of Warren Heard's developmental canvases, well, I certainly couldn't be guided by my own tastes. The canvases were unpleasant. They were derivative (though derivative of very good sources). They caused epilepsy.
But important? Absolutely. And I mean it. I do.
Misfit #9 is located belowground in the Santora Arts Building, and the women there are thrilled to have Heard's work. For the 30 years he has been painting, he has declined to exhibit—until now. (A planned show at the Irvine Fine Arts Center 15 years ago was purportedly yanked at the last minute when the City Council decided Heard's work was not fit for community consumption.) His works are difficult. They shriek with the pain of all the world come down on one man's head. And when he hasn't got enough angst of his own, he borrows someone else's. Canvases reflect friends' bulimia and the molestations they suffered as children. One painting shows a blue stomach in an emaciated body, skulls and distorted funhouse corpses, big waif eyes, and scrawled legends such as "Chips salsa menu soft food." Yes, soft foods are better when they come back up.
Heard uses a "developmental process," wherein he paints over his canvases for years at a time, until there are perhaps eight or nine layers of myth. The results are so dizzying and riddled with ADD they could bring on a seizure. Small black ovals (the ladies stood behind me and pointed out notable elements like the small black ovals, which are present in all Heard's paintings) look like thumb prints and cigarette burns. Even one's very identity—a thumb print—is a seared, scarred hole.
Heard is a chef by trade, and among the plethora of half-buried doodles and almost invisible icons are poisoned nourishments. On a canvas that has the word Disneyland executed in gangland script, something that looks like an Iron Cross, a foot from nowhere and an R. Crumb vibe, are the words "Sauté rats herbs black beans jumbo scallops." There's more, but I can't even begin to pick out elements from the hurricanes that sweep through Heard's work. They are so full one can't see their totality. Everything is fighting for attention like it's Al Gore making his comeback.
Let's take this one, for instance: a guy (looks like Heard's self-portrait) shoots himself in the head. Blood drips from his mouth, as does a mucousy chicken head that's falling to his lap. A corpsy baby wears a halo, sitting on the lap of its mother, who's a Picasso. Jesus, anguished and armless, rises above a Pieta Mary, who is not grotesque or painted like a Big Daddy Roth but rather classically, while another Jesus is joined by eyes and skulls and Iron Maiden claws. That one is still in progress.
So why do I think they're "important"? They look like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, they can't cohere but instead break into a thousand fragments, they're about after-school-special abuses that were trendy 15 years ago, and they hurt my eyes. And all those reasons are why they're important. A man's screams can't cohere. The ancient history of 15 years ago should be remembered in our shortening media cycles. Hurting my eyes? Good. Don't let me off easy. And Big Daddy Roth? Well, Rat Fink was fuckin' cool.
Warren Heard shows at Misfit #9 Gallery, the Santora Arts Building, 207 N. Broadway, Ste. B-8, Santa Ana, (949) 496-1524. Open Fri., 6-10 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. & 6-10 p.m.; Wed., noon-2 p.m. Through Aug. 31.