"Ellen Heck: Variations"
Heck revitalizes the ancient art of printmaking by making fierce use of its potential
Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., June 15, 2012
"Ellen Heck: Variations"Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 W. Sixth, 472-7428
Through June 30
One good way to define the word is to write it on a piece of paper, erase it, and then write the word again in the same place. Faint traces of the initial, obliterated marks add a subtle texture or complexity of shade to the second instance. That's a fine gambit for visual artmaking, the palimpsest, even as it alludes to the constant textual palimpsests that occur in in the work of writers – those fussy, narrative-makers always changing a word, a sentence, and sometimes entire swaths in a manuscript as they hone their tales toward the vision in their heads.
Ellen Heck, the artist whose work is currently on display at the elegant Wally Workman Gallery in West Sixth's loose conglomeration of art galleries, has used the palimpsest as a method of portraiture, capturing the image of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, at various ages in his life. But, see, this isn't just a series in which the first print is obscured and then a new image is printed over it, and so on, repeating until six stages have been overlaid and the final image is ghosted by what came before. No, that would be effective and evocative enough, but Heck's done something much cooler: She's used the printing plate itself as a palimpsest, etching the first image of Twain into copper, pulling the prints, then etching the next in the series over that first one on the same copper plate and pulling the prints, and then repeating over and over to take Twain from a young age to the hoary-headed raconteur we're all familiar with.
We reckon that Twain himself would've found this presentation a laudatory, even badass choice – especially as the results are sublime.
We've gone on about the above partly due to the clever process of The Aging of Mark Twain on One Copper Plate and partly because we're partial to writers. But that's the smaller part of this show by Heck, by heck – her printed portraits of friends in the guise of Frida Kahlo are the major feature of this one-woman show. The portraits are presented in single face after face or as a sort of souvenir sheet of images, like a display of artisanal free-range philately writ large. The beauty of these prints and others lies not only in the artist's drawing skill, but in the variety of methods used to to achieve her goals – note especially the larger works of "color wheels" that incorporate drypoint, acrylic, crayon, watercolor and sometimes more. Note all of this exhibition for examples of how so ancient an art as printmaking can be revitalized by a creator making fierce use of its possibilities and potential.