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“Lapsed”: Heidi Neff on Process, Time, Burning her Paintings, and Donald Trump

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I met Heidi Neff in 2013 when I started working as an adjunct professor in the art department at Harford Community College. I had just graduated with an MFA from MICA’s MFAST program the previous year. It was a time of great personal change, some positive and some not so positive, but this article is not about me so I won’t go into all of that. I only mention this because somehow over the course of ten years she morphed from boss to friend. She has always been there to support me, both in my teaching and my studio practice. Last semester was my last semester at HCC and I feel this interview is a fitting way for our friendship to move on to whatever comes next.

Of course, I am not just writing this because she is a friend, I felt genuinely moved to say something and find out more about Neff’s work after seeing her show Lapsed at Stevenson University The show spans many disciplines, with oil on canvas painting, multi-channel video installations and even a participatory wall text called What do you Want to Say.

In the corner of the gallery, there is a low pedestal bearing two piles of ashes. You can see charred fragments of wood within the piles, metal hanging hardware, and fragments of broken mirrors. A toddler sized rocking chair sits on one of the piles of ashes. Overlapping videos are projected onto the debris and the rocking chair, consuming it all in flames. At various times viewers can see images of paintings in a bonfire. The piece, titled “Ashes to Ashes,” gives you the effect of seeing paintings before, during, and after being destroyed simultaneously.

To say the work is political would be an understatement, to paraphrase her aunt at the opening- Hey Heidi why don’t you tell us where you stand politically? But it is more than that, it is about being an artist, being a mother, being a partner, and being a feminist in these ever so uncertain times. The show even goes so far as to include a musical contribution from her partner Paul Chuffo. As she puts it, the personal can be political and, as seems evident in the work, the political can be deeply personal. 

 

"Reflective practice"(detail), "Ashes to Ashes," and "Fire and Ice"
Ronan O'Reilly contributes to "What do you Want to Say"

Bart O’Reilly: I just noticed that your opening was on October 7th?

Heidi Neff: Yes, it was.

I don’t remember thinking about the Hamas attack at your opening.

I found out when I got home that night.

When I left your show I was thinking about how political it was.  

It’s so much about that. Obviously not about the Hamas attack, but I think the experience of my exhibit is kind of like how it feels being in someone else’s thoughts about all the things going on in the world. It really does fit to get kind of a news alert about a new war.

I’ve been thinking about incorporating video into my painting practice again myself. You have eight channel videos with analogue components in what look like hand made drawings, you project on objects and you even have a large oil painting. I’ve never seen that painting before. Is that a new painting or an old painting?

It is both. I started that painting, “Touched,” in, I think, 2011, maybe 2012, but just after Max was born. And then I’ve been adding to it. I added all kinds of things of personal significance to me throughout those years, just kind of slowly. It was going to be my last oil painting. I don’t know if it’s really my last oil painting, but it was going to be my last oil painting.

 

Heidi Neff, “Touched,” at Stevenson University

It’s very dense, the material is coarse and now that you mention it, it looks like a slow build up over several years. That is a long time to work on one piece, and clearly a lot has happened in the world over that time period. But it seems less political than the other work in the show. Can you speak to that a little?

Yeah, the texture is so important to me. I like things to feel a little rough. I like things to be tactile.

As for it being less political, I’m not sure it’s political at all except for in the 2nd wave feminist sense of the personal being political. And in that sense maybe it is very political. It started out as an expression of how I was feeling as a new wife and mother, which was a feeling of being trapped and over-touched to the point of rawness, but simultaneous feelings of wonder, awe, and confusion. And the rawest, most painful love ever. 

And then it became about time passing. I added my new baby and a toddler. There are symbols for the miscarriages I had during that time period as well. 

It was also about my struggle in the studio. When I started it, I thought, this will be my last oil painting. I’m going to use up all of these old crusty oils that are just sitting here, because I have to use acrylics for the health of my kids. I didn’t use any solvents for that reason. The plan was to pile it all on, completely for myself. It was never meant to be exhibited. I just needed to make something. I kept bringing it back out when I didn’t know what else to work on. 

Over time I started working on the animations a bit more than paintings. I had an idea of a future self in a rocking chair reflecting on every stage of her (my) life. I was learning animation slowly and painfully so I spent a ridiculous amount of time rotoscoping a loop from a video I made and my kids relentlessly teased me about how long I worked on it. In the end, it made sense to throw her (me) on the top layer of “Touched”. 

The way you depicted Donald Trump reminded me of when his mugshot came out a few months back. I was texting back and forth with some Irish friends and concluded that he’s kind of an evil genius because he looks like a Batman villain or something. In your videos you use his silhouette and he is instantly recognizable also. He’s like The Penguin—recognizable in silhouette form. So, let’s talk about Donald Trump for a minute. 

I think you are referring to my animated short “The Long Goodbye” which was a personal diary of every day starting with election day 2020 and ending with inauguration day 2021. There are so many images of Trump in that one. He gave me a lot of material. So what particularly would we say regarding Donald Trump?

The stylization of his image?

That’s a tough one. Whenever I watch Stephen Colbert and he talks about the newest things with Trump, he constantly goes to the same picture of him golfing because, you know, he looks really bad in that picture—you know, the one I’m talking about—you can just see his big butt.

But I also always feel bad at that point because that’s not what we should be making fun of him for. Right? Like, I don’t care how big someone’s ass is.

It’s really hard. But when you’re legitimately mocking someone for good reason, you know, like you’re going to pick up on some of those physical things like his butt or even his hair, you know? 

Yeah. It’s like, poofy in a certain way.

You know, he can be like the evil villain walking across a very certain way, and you emphasize the stomach and the spindly legs which is a pretty common way of showing a villain.  

One of my favorite sequences in “Long Goodbye” is a group of evil villain silhouettes getting into a fight. One of them is Sidney Powell. She just pled guilty, which I’m really excited about, because maybe she’ll turn. She was one of his lawyers.

Yeah, I know. We’ll see what happens. It’s like a circus. I talked to my aunt on the phone yesterday. She’s in Ireland and she just made a comment: if an Irish politician had one of the charges against them that he has, that would be it for them. They’d be out. The fact that he could still potentially be the president just boggles my mind.

I don’t understand. I mean, I really don’t understand because that was once the case in this country, too. Presidents have resigned over less, look at Nixon for example! 

And Boris Johnson in England stepped down because he went to a party during COVID… that was the end of his career, a party!

Right! Yeah! 

 

Left to Right: "Crowd Control," 8 Channel Video, and "Ashes to Ashes," mixed media installation

How do you go about editing the multi-screen videos? How do you put all that together? Were there elements of chance? Also can you talk about the analog components? You seem to include a lot of handmade drawings into your digital work.

You’re talking about my multi-screen video installation “Crowd Control.” There is an element of chance only in that I wasn’t really planning very linearly. It was an offshoot. Once my first animated short was finished, I didn’t know what I wanted to work on. So I went back to a video that I never finished…

As for the handmade drawings, I was working on the animation and I was getting really stressed out by technology and needed something tactile.

I had been working on an animated walk cycle for marching riot police. The cycle was just eight specific poses. And because I was having this need to do something on paper, I decided to print out the poses and use gel transfer to put each pose onto a nice piece of watercolor paper and make drawings around them showing different scenarios where the powers that be try to control us.

Animation can be a lengthy process. How long did it take?

It was supposed to be a spring break project. And you know how you always think you can do a lot more? It ended up taking the next six months, I think. But during spring break I wanted to make some drawings, which turned into mixed media paintings. 

Yes, we educators try to cram six months of ideas into one week! 

For better or for worse, I made the paintings without the animations in mind, with the riot police already on them and not the same aspect ratio as a TV. So I had to digitally take out the riot police and then rework the backgrounds digitally for the animations, because I needed the police to walk through again.

Yeah, that’s interesting. I really relate to that because I always think I’m going to work in a linear way.  But that’s never how the interesting stuff happens. I also find that things fit together in a more convincing and organic way when you do things like that. I love that you made the drawings without even thinking about including them in the video!!

Exactly. I don’t know if I’ll ever do the original short film that I was planning.

It’s finished now in another form. I’m interested to hear more about the tension between the personal and political in your work.

I’m a big second wave feminist. Well, I’m not of second wave feminism—I was raised by them—but I’m a big proponent of the second wave feminist idea of “the personal is political,” just making work about how you’re feeling and that’s often political in and of itself. 

It is political, of course, but it’s more about my personal experience and filter. There’s a quote that really rings true for me from William Kentridge in Drawing the Passing about making work about Apartheid. “It wasn’t so much that my pictures were trying to confront the politics of South Africa head-on at all but certainly the element of the world that is constituted by a political conflict and the violence in its wake was part of the vocabulary that came into the drawings and later into the films, so the drawing to the fullest particularly functions somewhat as a diary.” 

So you’re saying something human? 

Yeah. You always see it through your own lens. So I’m not trying to present it as anything else. But the rocking chair pieces, including the painting, are very much more about time passing in a personal way, family things, and relationships, but also just your relationship with yourself and how time passes.

For me they are actually about the non-linearity of time.  

I see it, that really comes across in all of the work!

Yeah. So the show was a way for me to mash those two ideas—personal non-linearity and political cycles—together because I don’t just work on one thing after another in a linear fashion. I took the idea of cycles of empires rising and falling, cycles of political systems rising and falling. And yet here we are, humans—experiencing these things kind of in a loop as well.

 

Still from "The Long Goodbye"
Still from "The Long Goodbye"
"Ashes to Ashes" (L), "Fire and Ice," and "Injustices (erased)"

The piece where you projected directly onto the rocking chair seems to really speak to this. The political and the personal as well as non-linear. 

You are talking about “Ashes to Ashes.” I burned an older piece of mine and presented two piles of ashes with a child’s rocking chair on top of one of the piles and then projected the fire and burning paintings onto the installation. This was an older piece, “Fire and Ice,”  that I wanted to resurrect because I wanted to put it in a new context. And then the old installation started to be problematic for me, so I decided to burn it; that is the new context. 

Burning?

I burned all but two of the paintings. And those became two piles of ashes underneath the rocking chair and I projected a video of the fire from the experience onto the ashes and the chair. The experience was like a celebration. I’m not sure if celebration is the right word, but it was a celebration or a reflection on the fall of the two party system.

Speaking of a two party system you just reminded me of a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: 

The situation of the world is like this. People completely identify with one side, one ideology to understand the suffering and the fear of a human being who thinks differently. We have to become one with him or her. To do so is dangerous and we will be suspected by both sides. But if we don’t do it, we align ourselves with one side or the other. We will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides. 

I am becoming more and more interested in the Buddhist idea of non-duality. It can apply to the dualistic two party system in this country or more pressingly, for me, to the situation in Gaza at the moment. 

I think it’s incredibly apt. I’m having a hard time. People are saying that those siding with Israel are siding with the oppressor, but there are oppressors on both sides. Not the civilians, the leaders… I’m done with the governments. I’m done with Hamas. I’m done with Netanyahu.

Tich Nhat Hanh lived through the Vietnam War. He was Vietnamese. So he wasn’t just speaking from a monastery on the mountaintop with peace and love and all that. He was in the midst of turmoil and chaos yet he advocates for equanimity. This kind of wisdom seems unthinkable today.

It’s confusing because I think people do have to take a stand on moral issues. You have to pick a side and say this is the side of justice sometimes. This is the right side of history. Like, white nationalism is wrong. Anti-Semitism is wrong, but so is the oppression of the Palestinian people. Hamas is wrong. And Netanyahu is a bad guy too. You have to say those things. 

So that’s where it gets difficult with the Thich Nhat Hanh quote.

And that’s the kind of struggle I had with my original piece, the “Fire and Ice” installation from 2011. I was saying that both sides can destroy the world, that the division is what is destroying the country. But when I wanted to update the piece and show it again, I realized that I couldn’t. There was no way that I was going to say Hillary Clinton was equivalent to Donald Trump.  

The piece was based on the Robert Frost poem Fire and Ice. It’s very short so I can just say it….

Some say the world will end in fire, 
Some say in ice. 
From what I’ve tasted of desire 
I hold with those who favor fire. 
But if it had to perish twice, 
I think I know enough of hate 
Too say that for destruction ice 
Is also great 
And would suffice. 

What an apt way to end, thank you Heidi! 

 

Heidi Neff’s exhibition “Lapsed” is on view at Stevenson University’s SoDac Gallery on their Owings Mills campus through Thursday, December 14. There will be a closing reception and film screening on Thursday, December 7 from 5:00-6:30 pm.

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