REFLECTION OF AN ARCHITECT ARTIST
A Conversation with Artist HEATH WEST
By Lori Zimmer
Heath West’s color-popping textural canvases are a fusion of the limitlessness of art and the technical precision of architecture–much like the artist himself. Using his background in architecture, with his penchant toward visual art, West has created his own language of visual communication. His pieces echo spatial relationships, philosophical tangents, and influence of the digital era. Translated from artspeak, his pieces layer gorgeous color with texture, creating an interplay between the two that leaves the viewer’s eyes bouncing around the canvas in delight.
For his new show, “Transparency/Reflection,” (which opens at Castor Gallery on the Lower East Side on January 15,) West focuses on an omnipresence in ALL of our lives: the screen. The screen has become big brother, the constant we turn to. The screen shows us the news, tells us who to date (and if they like us too), gives us confidence by showing us the idiocy of others, softens our hearts with the 30 best cat photos, provides total distraction from our jobs, and then is used to complete our jobs each day. It’s our friend and our fault, a helper and an obsession–and now a presence in West’s already intelligent artworks, another conduit to get lost in.
Lori Zimmer: In life and in work, you toe the line between architecture and fine art. What came first?
Heath West: Art. As a kid I really only cared about two things, skateboarding and art. The mix of those two, especially in California, lends itself to street art, which my friends and I did a lot of. A 6 month early morning weekend clean up stint with the local juvenile hall set me straight at 15, but I still love street art. Cities can be ranked according to the quality of their graffiti writers, no doubt. This mix of art and play at urban scales really had an effect with me. I arrived at architecture via art history, where one seminar we studied the history of architecture, and I was completely hooked. I was drawn to architecture’s cultural impact on us, from intimate personal scales to political urban ones. I eventually became a teaching assistant to an architecture history course for a couple of years while I was in graduate school. But art never went away. There was a day when I had to decide, MFA or MARCH? If I went for the MFA, I would’ve studied painting, I know it. I love paintings–always have–but there was something about architecture which made more sense to me (albeit, I have questioned that decision many times since). But I don’t regret not studying painting over architecture. Architecture school was a transformative experience.
LZ: How has your training in the one affect the other? Do you feel these two facets of yourself are interrelated, or do you feel you’re leading a double life?
HW: I do feel like I’m leading a double life, at times. But it’s as if I had to go to architecture school to make my art. I feel that my work is “architectural,” not just because of grids and framing, but because of the layering of material and their spatial effects. Making was always the most important thing for me when I was in school, and once I graduated and found work in an office, all I’d do is CAD, 40 hours a week. So, a big part of the cultural experience was now missing. Since architecture moves so painfully slow, art has always been in the balance of making ideas, as one can move much faster with art.
LZ: In the title for your new exhibition, “Transparency/Reflection,” you put special emphasis on a grammar tool that is often overlooked–the “/” aka “the slash.” What brought on your focus on a punctuation mark?
HW: The slash [ / ] is a very interesting line of philosophy and history. Think of everything from Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases to the Slash Records and Slash Magazine of early Los Angeles punk culture. The slash is a gesture of division, but not separation. It”s always part of a unity. There’s a balance included (ex: Yin/Yang). The Supports/Surfaces movement in France in the 60s-70s used the slash as punctuation in the title of their group, emphasizing a return to the binary-purity of material compositions, and around the same time, Roland Barthes’ book S/Z was released, which structures the literary codes in a Balzac story. The “S” and “Z” are initials of the two main characters, where the slash [ / ] represents their binary-unity of the story. And if we look at our digital culture today, slashes, whether they are read visually or hidden within hyperlinks, their digital functionality is part of how we navigate the web. The slash has a functionality that is saturated in culture and meaning.
LZ: How does your new work relate to this slash?
HW: Compositionally. I start with a grid, but I’ll rotate it until I feel that it’s visual alignment is right, when the angle of the lines become sharp. Sometimes the slash is invisible in the exterior framing strips, where breaks in their connections, or voids in their material act as slashes, as does balancing contrasting edge colors.
LZ: Your work involves bold colors, textures, and patterns. When working with these multi media mediums, do you tend to gravitate more toward color or pattern?
HW: Color. How light reacts with the materials, how one views the work in perspective and experiences it in movement, is color-dependent, but not necessarily pattern-based.
LZ: This new body of work is heavily influenced by the digital world (as are your other pieces), but also by the ever-present screens that have become part of our daily lives. Are you accepting of the omnipresence of “THE SCREEN”? Are your pieces in support of this conduit for knowledge/information/imagery?
HW: Definitely. There is no such thing as an unscreened life, or an unscreened point of view. That would be a vacuum, a place where no lines are drawn. Think of that famous scene in The Matrix, where they’re in the “pure” white space–no ground plane, no walls–what a nightmare! Eventually one has to make a decision, red pill or blue pill? This decision will determine your life. We filter, select, and screen information in and out of our brains all of the time, most of the time without our being aware of it. But once the screening becomes activated, then philosophical ideas can be formed and developed.
LZ: Frames in an artwork can be an afterthought, a preference of the collector, used to integrate an artwork into a room, or to simply be used as a function to hang on the wall. To you, the frame means so much more, tell us how your frames are not just a cosmetic necessity.
HW: In material terms, I start with a frame, and end with a frame. The fabrics are bracketed with framing. This parallels architecture. Walls are framing where the structure is bracketed with cladding materials. Framing not only structures, it organizes and sets forth an idea. Framing is both a literal and philosophical constraint. How could the framing of a work, become the work itself? Or, become a compositional element within the work. One of the side effects of the framing strips on the exterior of my work, is to short circuit any further framing, to avoid the cosmetic necessity, the boxed-in feeling that some frames have.
LZ: To me, your work is relatable on different levels to different people. Your use and understanding of color and pattern speaks to the pure aesthetes, your points, grids and algorithms resonate with the digital and tech savvy, and your spatial exploration coupled with philosophical influence cater to the brainiacs. Of these layers, what do you want your viewers to take away from your pieces?
HW: The experience. I know this will sound utopian, but I want the viewer to experience a spatial relationship with the work that goes beyond language. To activate the senses is ideal. If this is something spiritual or not, that is up to the viewer, but it wouldn’t be incorrect to approach it that way. I hope that these different layers could be in agreement to the experiential reading, because the overall meaning of the work is to be able to continually see organized color and light in the structured nature of our everyday, everything.
Heath West is a Houston-based architect and artist. His latest show, “Transparency/Reflection,” is on display from January 15th – February 8th, 2015 at Castor Gallery, 254 Broome Street on the Lower East Side.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Art by Heath West & Photography by Mary Nguyen / Courtesy of Heath West
Design by Mina Darius
Art by Heath West & Photography by Mary Nguyen / Courtesy of Heath West