Going Nowhere

“Going Nowhere” is not the state I’m in, but the title of the installation, at left, by Princeton-based artist Frances Heinrich who is exhibiting Narrative Art: What Happened? at the Watchung Arts Center, 18 Stirling Road, Watchung, through May 1. (Forgive me, but I love to say “Watchung.” Bless you!) Here’s what I wrote about Ms. Heinrich in 2004, when she exhibited at the Arts Council of Princeton:

Take a closer look. The veiled figure in black with a heart on a TV monitor at her chest is not Death, but the Bride Who Wore Black.

There is much to see in this installation, from the dismembered breasts (“that’s seduction,” says the artist, Frances Heinrich) to the feet spinning around on a turntable (“the dance of life, spinning far too fast,” she says) and the typewritten message decrying technology rolled on the vintage Underwood typewriter.

“Buyer Beware: A Conceptual Flea Market” represents “capitalist commodification and object anachronism, as well as the daily bombardment of information,” says Ms. Heinrich. The installation uses found objects from actual flea markets, either in their “readymade” state, in the style of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, or transformed into sculpture.

“Flea markets are vast visual tapestries of anachronism and object obsolescence,” says Ms. Heinrich in her artist’s statement. “They are sometimes living, breathing portraits of people’s lives seen through the accumulation of their possessions.

A frequent flea marketer, Ms. Heinrich has long perceived the “junque” venues as “unformed works of art with aesthetic potential… It’s visually exciting and begs to be worked with,” she says.

Flea markets are “great equalizers,” she continues. “They are object lessons in assigned value and in our capitalist tendency to commodify everything. Something in the dirt, without the hype of marketing and its original price tag, must stand alone.”

Speaking of dirt, one of the unusual aspects of this installation is the mound of dry crumbly soil that has been brought into the gallery and on which everything else rests. Ms. Heinrich says she stores the dirt, originally from a neighbor’s construction, in sacks in her basement when “Buyer Beware” is not on view.

Contrasting with the simplicity of the soil, many parts of the installation are highly worked pieces of sculpture the artist has exhibited in the past as pieces in their own right. She has recently discovered the photo transfer process, and there are images from her life throughout “Buyer Beware.” A photo of her mother’s face, for example, has been transferred into the shadow of the bride (whose face was modeled after Ms. Heinrich’s daughter; her daughter’s face is also reproduced, like strips from an old-fashioned photo booth at the five-and-dime, inside a blender). There is a giant beater from an industrial-size Hobart dough machine, an alarm bell she picked out of someone’s garbage and smaller bells with photo transfers that represent the wedding party. Ms. Heinrich says the photo transfer process is often more difficult than drawing the image.

Besides the breasts (cast in plaster, then finished in various techniques, with some encrusted with soil to symbolize regeneration), other objects representing seduction include lips and bottles of champagne. “Everyone likes to enjoy life so we buy into it,” she says.

For the old toaster she bought at a flea market, Ms. Heinrich made slices of toast out of plywood, burned the edges, then transferred images of families at meal time from 1941 Woman’s Day magazines. “Those are the most vacuous magazines I’ve ever looked at,” she says. “That whole lifestyle is toast.”

Dahlias have been pressed onto old irons, and a photo album contains images from flea markets. A public-domain photo of an atomic bomb exploding has been transferred onto one of four TV screens.

In addition to the minute details of the piece, Ms. Heinrich has elaborate introspections to go with it. “I find we’re being continually sold different self-serving agendas by different segments,” the artist says. “We have to beware of opinions. We have to examine the source: what’s behind that opinion? The bride is in black because there’s a lot of danger in buying what is being sold.”

It may seem like it took a lifetime to create this installation, but in fact Ms. Heinrich started on its components eight years ago.

Studying art at Rutgers in the 1960s, Ms. Heinrich was surrounded by artists Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Watts, Geoffrey Hendricks and George Segal. “We had partitioned studios, and Roy Lichtenstein worked in the partition next door,” she recollects. Mr. Lichtenstein was her teacher in those days before he became an icon of the pop art movement, and she continues to be influenced by his work to this day. “It was an exciting time – he was experimenting, taking risks, and it rubbed off.”

George Segal was a fellow student. “He was older but had to get his master’s in order to teach. He was restless in sculpture class and went outside the parameters, as did I.”

Fluxus artist Robert Watts was the professor. “He taught the class with tongue-in-cheek,” Ms. Heinrich said. “He was playing mind games with us. We were doing traditional things and he wanted to shake things up.”

From Geoffrey Hendricks she learned performance art. “He shaved a star into his head and stood on it with a colander on his feet as water was poured through for a reverse shower.”

Later, she earned a master’s in art history from Columbia, but “it was anticlimactic after working with those interesting people,” she says.

After graduate school, Ms. Heinrich’s work went on hiatus. There was a daughter to raise, a sick mother to care for, a husband retired from the recording industry who loved to travel. “It’s broadening to see the world. We can live life in an artistic way without producing art,” she says. “You don’t have to produce art in a show to have the sensitivity of an artist, to see the beauty in a pile of leaves.

“In history,” she continues, “the function of art has changed from ritualistic to religious, then to serving the state and the court. It served practical and social purposes. Inventiveness and creativity are relatively new ideas. Self-expression is a new idea. The impressionists started it when photography freed them up to go out and look at the light. The Dadaists were tired of being painterly and wanted thoughts and concepts.”

Ms. Heinrich’s rebirth as an artist includes curating shows and performance art. Two years ago, her “We’re All Connected But Separation Is Necessary,” a piece involving ribbons threaded through the garments of adults who know each other through their children, was performed at Ellarslie in Trenton.

Ms. Heinrich teaches art as well and will be offering a class in photo transfer at Princeton Adult School this fall.

“Making art is a nonessential luxury; it borders on frivolous, unless you can communicate,” she says. “But everyone should learn how to see, to surround themselves with beauty and visual richness. Art should be something everyone can partake in.”

In addition to the installation, the show includes pieces that hang from the wall. They are mixed media and deeply symbolic. “Getting Along,” for example, includes ink drawing, watercolor and photo transfer. Inspired by a corporate group photo from a stock report, all the people conform to one another: their shoes, their pants, their posture and expressions are the same. “They struck me as so happy in their conformity,” says Ms. Heinrich, who has covered them with camouflage prints.

“The military uses camo as a concealment device. I use it as a metaphor for the skins we use for social camouflage in order to get along,” she says. “I have friends who don’t wear enough and get in trouble. You can go the other way and be totally camouflaged. In order to function as a group, we need to camouflage but maybe we do it too much. There’s a fine line between reticence and confrontation. To what degree do we acquiesce?”

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