BRATTLEBORO—All of us have had time for self-reflection since the start of the pandemic. Richard Heller translated it onto his canvas.
Heller’s new portrait and figurative paintings in a show titled “Remote Work” will be on exhibit through the end of October at Gallery in the Woods.
Heller, 63, chair of the art department and teacher for nearly 30 years at Brattleboro Union High School, paints and draws and shows his work locally. He has created art since he was in his late teens but says he will always be a student.
He began putting together the show before COVID arrived, but the series of self-portraits (colored pencil drawn on black paper) that are part of it are linked to his experience of looking at his image within a group during Zoom conferences.
“They are about looking at myself as this aging man in the midst of a pandemic and in meetings looking at myself on a screen,” he said of the portraits, some distorted and exaggerated images of himself. “They are about the idea of focusing and examining something perhaps in more detail than ever examined before. They are expressing something, though, not copying. I take in mood, light—all those things that make you transform and transcend.”
Heller teaches upper-level drawing and painting classes and often has students hold a pencil in hand and look at something to see what they can do on paper.
“There’s this technical aspect of teaching students about materials and this conceptual aspect of teaching how the artist can build meaning into their work through aesthetic choices,” he said. “I ask why certain things are unmemorable and why others stand out, why they like or hate (a piece of art). It becomes the focal point for discussion.”
Over the past 40 years, Heller has studied art around the world.
“It’s my duty to share what I take in with my students,” he said.
The figurative paintings have been a recurring theme in Heller’s work over the past 25 years and are a way to reinterpret the body. They originated from plastic templates of the human figure he enlarged and created life-sized stencils from. He uses the stencils as abstract shapes, although they do relate to the human figure.
“In these pieces I’m intrigued by the idea of something that looks like it’s appearing and disappearing,” he said. “There’s a Jasper Johns quote about making an image you recognize that also falls apart. You’re focused on the object and how it’s made and you kind of lose the object at the same time.”
He often uses rubber stamps, which he designs and carves using simple geometric shapes, to apply paint and in some cases puts paint directly on the stamps like printmaking. In other cases, he pushes the stamps into the wet paint or has sanded and scraped the surfaces creating layers and texture.
“I’m using them in a much more intuitive way; I’m not repeating the image,” he said.
He uses this technique for the figurative paintings and for his abstract work, in which he visualizes concepts such as biological structures, patterns from various cultures, and information networks.
As a painter, he went on, he’s always very concerned about the viewer’s experience: what visual elements will be enjoyed and examined while in front of his paintings.
“The physical aspect of the material and the presence (of the piece) are a big part of the aesthetic for me when conceiving and making a piece,” he said.
“Remote Work” will be on display through October 31 at Gallery in the Woods, 145 Main Street, Brattleboro. For more information, call 802-247-4777 or visit galleryinthewoods.com.