Modern Painters | October 2006
Introducing: Jay Heikes
“Freedom produces jokes and jokes produce freedom,” said the philosopher Jean-Paul Richter, as quoted by Freud in the latter’s 1905 study of jokes. It is a simple, seemingly innocent conceit, but also misleading. To tell a joke, one must follow a script—the joke’s success lies wholly in the delivery. And the idea has a sinister undertone. Freedom, after all, does not necessarily equal benevolence, and jokes can be cruel.
In a work that appeared in last year’s Whitney Biennial, twenty-four 30-by-40-inch prints, unframed and pinned to the wall in a grid, show pixilated blow-ups of a young man standing in front of a curtain, shaggy blond hair hanging in his eyes. He is posed differently in each, sometimes making what appears to be an obscene hand gesture, his figure partly obscured by collaged cutouts and doodles in tempera, graphite, and marker. It is a subtle, black-and-white piece, and, when juxtaposed with some of the more bombastic work in the Biennial, it was easy to overlook. But its unassuming nature is part of its appeal, and on closer scrutiny the gridlike arrangement, similar to a storyboard for a film, congeals into an absorbing study of narrative. Yet it is impossible to determine any sort of trajectory. The title, So There’s This Pirate..., offers a hint, but the ellipsis informs us that, although the performer is likely telling a joke (one that seems vaguely familiar), we’ll never know the punch line. By depriving us of the outcome, the piece keeps us in limbo, delaying any possibility of satisfaction, or, to return to Freud, “freedom.”
The performer in So There’s This Pirate ... (2005) is artist Jay Heikes, who is based in New York and Minneapolis, and only on further investigation does one learn that the images are stills taken from a video he made in 2005. In that video (which is not part of the artwork), Heikes tells a joke involving not only a pirate but also his loyal if insubordinate companion, a parrot. The video provides Heikes with raw material to make the Pirate drawings, and the artist is continually embellishing and adding to the joke and recording the results on video to generate new stills, which in turn bear new graphic embellishments. “By telling the same joke over and over, I’ve realized its rigid structure allows me to find totally new directions every time I make the delivery—like the splats and circles that relate to art movements such as Pop art and Expressionism,” Heikes stated recently in an exhibition brochure for a three-person show at the Walker Art Center. The latest iteration of the piece, which will be on view in a group show at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York this month, includes a bit of pyrotechnics involving a candle and some spray adhesive.
Having already invoked Freud, it would be easy to slap a psychoanalytic reading on another work by Heikes, the 2005 sculpture The Hill Upstairs, which is installed in an administrative office at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. It may take the viewer a few moments to find the piece, since it hangs overhead. It consists of a section of drop ceiling that measures roughly 25 by 30 feet and projects about two feet down from the true ceiling. The tiles are pockmarked and flimsy, as they are in all drop ceilings, but a faint pink and brown fluid seems to have seeped into the porous material. Because the ceiling is false, its rigid structure intended to conceal something unsightly (wiring and heating ducts, for example), the leak might seem an ugly and potentially menacing intrusion. But that kind of interpretation would disregard the formal qualities of The Hill Upstairs, and that would be a shame.
The stain, derived from coffee and beet juice, spreads over the cheap, oppressive tiles to surprisingly sensual effect, and it lends them a weird kind of dignity. Given the work’s references to Minimalism—the repeating forms, the grid—and its use of common materials, it evokes the way that Donald Judd’s sculptures elevated aluminum and plywood to the status of “precious” materials such as marble.
But more than Minimal art, the stand-up comic seems to be, at this point in Heikes’s development, his primary inspiration. When Heikes adopts the comedian as an alter ego, the connection becomes inevitable between the Laugh Factory and the art gallery: the stand-up comic stands in for the artist’s presenting his work to the public via talks, symposia, statements, and interviews. To the degree that this aspect of his work addresses the romanticized myth of the artist working alone in his studio, it recalls early videos by Bruce Nauman and William Wegman, while its element of institutional critique is akin to the performative, slapstick art of Martin Kersels. At a time when the art market, and in concert with it, increasingly “career”-oriented MFA programs, seem to be pushing younger and younger artists into the spotlight, it is understandable that an artist like Heikes, so concerned with the role of the artist and the process of artmaking, would choose implicitly to mock the idea that one should sales-pitch practices that are still in a nascent, vulnerable stage of growth.
“In my dreams, I want to tell the worst jokes to the biggest crowds,” Heikes said in the Walker brochure. (Not surprisingly, Heikes cites indie comic Neil Hamburger as an influence.) For the Walker this summer, Heikes created an installation of objects, all painted black, that he terms “roadgear,” referring to equipment that musicians—or props comics— take on the road. One object resembled the sort of case a magician would use to “shock” the audience with that old chestnut, the saw-a lady-in-half trick. Leaning against a wall was another object, which looked like a walker, referencing quite deliberately the institution’s name. Those who looked closely noticed that it consisted of two canes held together by a piece of cardboard, the whole contraption propped up by a shining gold dildo. This and the other roadgear works not only confront notions of stagecraft, artifice, and trickery, they also allude to the ephemeral nature of fame and success. The New Heaven Hook (2005), a large silver vaudeville-style hook, was included in both the Whitney Biennial and the Walker show. At the Whitney, it was hung discreetly over one of the metal bars of the electrical-wiring grid on the museum’s ceiling. By offering a utensil for, in essence, his own removal, Heikes renders transparent—even goads—the fickle judgments of the museumgoer, as though to say, “Take it or leave it, it’s all I’ve got.” If Heikes’s self-deprecation seems a little excessive at times, it is redeemed by subtlety and a light tone. In the incarnation of the pirate-parrot drawings that Heikes made for the Walker show, So There’s This Pirate . . . Live from Minneapolis (2006), ungainly shapes that look like large paint splatters cover some of the video stills; these could be read as Abstract Expressionist blotches, but it is equally plausible to see them as the remains of tomatoes hurled at a performer in disgust.
In cataloguing all these references to failure, to rejection, to removal, it’s hard to ignore the presence of a subtext related to the ultimate disappearing act. During a recent conversation, the artist reluctantly told me the joke’s climax. At risk of giving too much away, suffice it to say that it ends with the ornery parrot, in death, giving the pirate “the bird.” It’s a perfect summary of the way Heikes combines the comic and the slightly—or more than slightly—morbid. Indeed, if you could boil down Heikes’s project to a single phrase, it might be that old show-biz aphorism: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”