The Art Assassin

Chapter 3: ASSASSINATION: Eric Heist, Artist Represented by Schroeder Romero Gallery and Director of Momenta Art

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Photograph of Eric Heist and Leon Jackson. Courtesy of Eric Heist.
Eric Heist: Staged Death, 2007, painted wood, carpet, stanchions, velvet ropes, plaster, incandescent black light bulbs, 84 by 108 by 40 inches. Courtesy of Schroeder Romero Gallery.

Eric Heist‘s installation pieces such as “USTrust” or “Interfaith Center” behave similarly to a systems novel by Don Delillo or William Gaddis due to a concern for deconstructing the idea of social structure and probing underneath the surfaces of political behavior by the state and individual. Going beyond mere agitprop, his profound works analyze the conflict between the individual or everyman against the broader social structure, typically the government. With complex installation art that mirror the human inability to make sense of how one fits into the bigger schemes of life that is defined by our relationship to the overall body politic, Heist points to the viewer this relationship to his or her eyes while showing that no political relationship can be reduced to simple obedience or defiance.

This insightful artist established in 1986 with Donna Czapiga and James Mills an artist-run charitable organization that works to promote emerging and underrepresented artists named Momenta Art. Originally this exhibition space was located in Philadelphia before moving to a few temporary places in Manhattan and its final home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Heist has promoted unceasingly difficult to understand work that a public may not understand on the first try but with repeated visits to the exhibition. The institution is involved in art fairs, curated projects, and artists multiples. One has to admire Heist for his innate ability to deliver the public some rather thoughtful and provocative artwork while helping other artists to develop their career and style through Momenta Art, which never has kowtowed to the commercial eye candy which predominated in the New York gallery system during the past decade. Heist’s art and Momenta Art have enriched the public with exhibitions that frame a dialogue between artist and viewer that is a rare experience for anyone today.

If you have any questions about Heist’s installation pieces or other artwork, feel free to contact Schroeder Romero Gallery at lisa@schroederromero.com or sarajo@schroederromero or at (212) 630-0722. If you have any questions about Momenta Art, feel free to contact Momenta Art at info@momentaart.org or at (718) 218-8058.

qi peng: To start off on a lighter note, what are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? Do you have any recent galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What things in those shows inspired your artistic eye and tastes?

Eric Heist: Hi Qi-

The things that come to mind are the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy and the recent film Sunshine Cleaning.

The book follows a boy and his father through a horrific post-apocalyptic American landscape. The deep connection between them and the threat of losing that connection was deeply. It taps into a general contemporary fear that is absurd in its extremity while remaining powerfully emotional.

Sunshine Cleaning is about two sisters who start a crime scene clean-up business. Life has run aground for the surviving father and two sisters because of their mother’s suicide. It is an exaggerated narrative that makes a more universal connection that we all feel sooner or later– the way the death of a parent changes our lives forever.

qi peng: What is your opinion of art world journalism? Do you read periodicals such as ArtForum or ARTnews to get an up to date understanding of what goes on within the art world? Do you have any favorite artistic blogs or websites that you enjoy looking at on a regular basis? Do you feel that smaller, regional art markets like San Francisco or Salt Lake City will have a chance to expand their horizons into becoming essential and vibrant art hot spots just like Los Angeles or New York City? What do you think is the current state of contemporary art within the Brooklyn area where you are located? Is it difficult to sell conceptual art and large-scale installation pieces to the public, particularly during this slow economy?

Eric Heist: I try to keep up with art writing but don’t have that much time. I read Artnet, The NY Times, Art in America, Artforum and other publications when I can.

I find that the most sensitive writers about art are other artists. William Powhida wrote the most comprehensive piece about my work in the New Art Examiner. Carrie Moyer, Mira Schor, Barbara Pollack, Calvin Reid are all artist writers who have written meaningful essays or articles for Momenta Art. It is critically important for artists to write about art and not leave it in the hands of critics who have motivations that supersede the promotion of meaningful contemporary art.

With the shrinking of the art market I hope there will be more attention focused on artist-run spaces like Momenta Art and other alternative galleries in particular. New spaces are opening in Williamsburg and more established artists are beginning to be included in the exhibition programs here. I think that is a very positive development. The do-it-yourself aesthetic here is having more importance now that the market has loosened its grip.

Momenta Art is a not for profit and has never sold work seriously. We know very little about the art market except for our forays into art fairs and our annual benefit, when we auction art works. We depend on individual donations, government and private support for our survival. We have always been a pretty bare bones organization and probably will weather this difficult time, though it won’t be easy. Endowments are shrinking as well as city and state budgets, which gets passed to not for profits like us.

I don’t know if that will impact regional areas like Salt Lake City that will always depend on the strength of the community of artists in creating a place where artists can feel their work is meaningful.

qi peng: How do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy? Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects than the overly commercial work, typically geared for the art fairs, during the upcoming years? How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the dramatic shifts within the political and corporate culture, particularly in America? Do you have any thoughts about the current state of the stock market and its concomitant corruption? Any thoughts on the Obama administration in relation to your viewpoint on history, social identity, and the arts scene?

Eric Heist: I’m glad to see the art fairs become less frenzied. I found the experience to be alienating and a poor environment to experience art in a meaningful way, scanning booths for objects of value for potential possession. That’s not how artists look at work. The fairs were not for artists. And the artists who I admire did not benefit from these spectacles.

Americans are pretty unprepared and rusty in our means to question. We have lost our ability to conceive of a world without appliances and electronic devices. That expectation of comfort makes it hard to find a consensus on change, even with a government that had been pillaging and plundering for 8 years. Turning that around, recovering from a twisted mindset in which people vote against their interests, is a challenge that Obama is attempting. It means embracing the possibility of good government despite the incredible cynicism of the Bush/Cheney reign.

I hope that this leads to the recognition of the arts as a partner in creating a more healthy society. We lost that when the right pointed at art as a sign of cultural depravity. And the left never stepped up to defend art for fear of appearing elitist. So art was left to itself, and critics and artists formed multiple codes to describe our work in ways that the average person could no longer begin to understand. We need to reconnect to the culture we live in, to make work that has relativity to the things we share.

qi peng: Are there any restaurants or hangouts such as bookstores around Brooklyn or anywhere else that you wish to recommend us? What are the qualities that you enjoy best about the places that you have chosen?

Eric Heist: Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers is a great art book store in Williamsburg run by Miles Bellamy on N. 6th and Bedford Avenue. Excellent new Mexican street stand at N. Third and Bedford with hand-made tortillas. There’s a really good organic butcher, Marlowe and Daughters, on Broadway around Berry St.

qi peng: As a graduate of the of the University of Delaware and then Hunter College, what were those school years like? How was life in the studio like back then? Did you have any influential professors or students during that time and what was their impact on you and your work? How did you develop your current style of challenging installations which deconstruct the social institution and investigate the role of organizations within our society, both private and public?

Eric Heist: Delaware was very supportive. Gave me a very nice studio that I still miss. Bob Straight, Steve Tanis, Larry Holmes were all very thoughtful teachers. Osvaldo Romberg was an Israeli/Argentinian conceptualist who somehow landed in Newark, Delaware. I worked for him as a student, sometimes visiting his loft in Soho, which introduced me to the idea of living in New York. Andrea Blum at Hunter gave me the license to start thinking about the social significance of art though it took me a long while to go there.

qi peng: Do you have any favorite hobbies which you enjoy in your spare time? How do these activities inform the studio work?

Eric Heist: Gardening, racquetball, snowboarding.

qi peng: Are there any places which you would like to travel someday to? Which places would you find inspiring to see? Do you incorporate the idea of travel within any of your pieces? In what ways does the concept of travel relate to the institution of travel agencies and the lack of a polar focus within today’s shifting world views?

Eric Heist: I’ve had some opportunities to travel because of my work and the gallery. I find it a difficult but inspirational activity in general.

The installation “Travel Agents” presented the pretense of a travel agency to talk about the environment of war as extreme and addictive, a substitute escape from the known. After that work I wanted to travel to Rwanda to see some of the sites where atrocities took place. Mostly to see what I expect is a lack of any evidence, an inconclusiveness, the mundanity of landscape that remains.

qi peng: What are the stories behind your interest in USTrust? Behind the Interfaith Center? Behind the Travel Agents? Behind LMC? Behind the Candy Factory? What is your general take on how an artist relates to the structure and functioning of social institutions relative to the average Joe or Jane?

Eric Heist: Leisure Management Corporation was the earliest of the works you ask about. It was a look at a disciplined, corporate environment that is fertile with sexual tension. It is what is repressed and therefore most psychically present through its absence. One work from that show was a working door placarded “Maintenance” that opens onto a full-size illuminated light box image of a personal discotheque. I had been working as an art installer at Paine Webber in midtown when I was making this work. There was a grand public lobby space where the art is installed. Hidden in the recesses of this façade was a dingy maintenance closet. Maintenance workers would sit alone in the dark among the janitorial supplies, taking breaks. I thought about how you can make a private space within a public space, how you can create fantasies within these corporate realms that are socially unacceptable, but somehow necessary and preferable to the public environment.

At the beginning of the Iraq War, after 9/11, I was having dinner with a number of “liberal” art world people and was surprised to find that 95% of them supported the invasion of Iraq. I never thought of the art world as conservative, or hawkish. To find that what you thought was reason turned upside down led me to read first-hand accounts of war environments; the most atrocious, inhuman, uncivilized, brutal accounts I could find. These accounts were made into labels for picturesque post cards of the places depicted- Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Palestine. It was an attempt to describe places where all moral codes are turned upside down. Soldiers and journalists often describe an addiction to these war environments and a difficulty in returning to civilian life. This reflects a desire to travel, to get away from the ordinary to an absurd and horrific extreme.

UStrust was my most recent exhibition, in May, 2008, at Schroeder Romero. I’d been in Miami during the art fair noticing the deep divisions between the poor, homeless and extreme wealth coupled with bad behavior. Drunken young dealers were wandering onto the beach in the early morning getting beaten with thousands of dollars stolen. People living on the beach with suitcases and camping gear while a block away people are partying all night long, It was depressing. We’ve known the crash was coming. I made posters that provided first-hand accounts of poverty and invisibility in America coupled with installation artifacts that connected those narratives to my own experiences and to the larger economy.

qi peng: Your drawings, which are pencil on paper, reflect an ongoing concern with the way that the media portrays and highlights certain events from the flow of life, thus creating a “false sense” of history. How does your representation of so-called historical turning points differ from that of other history-based artists such as Gerhard Richter? How is your philosophy of history reflected within the artwork?

Eric Heist: Yes, the drawings you refer to do attempt to arrest an event, such as a bombed train, or car, or marketplace, or church, and invest it with time and attempt to give it meaning. The slowness of the medium of drawing allows for this. Its probably a common realization that it has that ability. But I don’t draw “turning points”, they’re images that illustrate danger in the world through the media. It was an ongoing story as guerilla tactics were being presented as a continuum, something Americans would have to learn to live with. It felt that we were being prepared for a new normalcy that seemed previously unthinkable. By slowing it down it was my attempt to resist and question that acceptance.

qi peng: Who would you consider as your greatest artistic influences on your artwork that ranges from drawings to large-scale installations? How are their ideas manifested within the final product of your wonderful works? In what way are personal events from your own life manifested within your pieces?

Eric Heist: Warhol’s Disaster series had a strong effect on me. It was very distanced work but I got a sense of something deeply emotional underlying it. The detached representation of those images emphasized for me the underlying loss of humanity through a simple act of transference. That contradiction, that something could carry within it the opposite of what it appears to be, was very difficult and engaging to me. I attempt to carry that complexity into my own work.

qi peng: You are the current director of Momenta Art, which is “artist-run charitable institution that works to promote emerging and underrepresented artists. We seek to expand the dialogue of art by showing work that is not well represented in commercial galleries because of its form or content.” What are the challenges of finding enough time to balance studio time and running the gallery space? What do you enjoy about helping emerging artists who create challenging conceptual artwork that have limited commercial appeal?

Eric Heist: Directing a not for profit has many rewards but it requires changing personas. There are routinely circumstances when I must minimize my ego in order to make things work. I am there to assist artists we have committed to promoting. That can be a difficult position for many artists. I find it a challenging exercise in being able to pack and unpack the ego. It makes self-identity into a much more mutable construct than we often imagine.

qi peng: What are some of the projects that Momenta Art have been involved with that have developed a sense of continuity with both the Philadelphia and New York (Manhattan and Williamsburg) locations? How would you describe your curating style and underlying philosophy and approach to how your audience and collectors respond to the artwork? Do you believe that art must serve as a counterpoint to the stereotypes and hackneyed ideas that the everyday media presents? What is the most controversial or provocative exhibition that you have presented and how did the audience respond to the show?

Eric Heist: Since moving to a new location we have begun focusing on solo and guest-curated group exhibitions. Our interest has been in artists whose work combines aesthetic and social concerns. We have begun providing solo exhibitions to some more established artists who have not exhibited in some time in order to reverse the trend of racing to catch the next young star before they get snapped up by a commercial gallery. These are, in contrast, artists with clear visions and defined histories that have ad influence and need to be revisited. Some of the artists we have recently exhibited include Carl Pope, Elisabeth Kley, Rochelle Feinstein, Mira Schor, and Hunter Reynolds.

I’m not sure I have much of a curatorial style. Once I commit to an artist I trust them to make the best exhibition they can. I gauge how much help they want or need and try to provide that. I try to set limits when necessary. I am not attracted to artists who think that by making unrealistic demands they will be taken more seriously, or whose ego precedes their work. I prefer ones who are serious about saying something meaningful and who simply want to find a venue that tries to present that as clearly as possible.

All art operates at a personal level, made by an individual that is completed when it expresses something to another. It is essentially a grassroots experience and so operates by definition differently than media imagery, which exists to provide broad appeal to the desires of large demographics.

An exhibition organized by artist Peter Scott, “Pop Patriotism” examined the commodification of patriotism that occurred after 9/11. It was an exhibition that ran counter to the prevailing sentiment in the US at that time. The exhibition presented work that critiqued this reaction very directly, and I was pleased that many visited the gallery who were not regular visitors. Some told me they appreciated the exhibition and were relieved to find a place that questioned the use of patriotism is that way.

qi peng: What is your favorite online resources and art magazines or journals for checking out the latest art news scoop? Do you have any favorite tales from your gallery years you wish to share with your fans and column readers here? How does your gallery interact with its audience and collectors through the Internet? Do you feel that selling artwork will be more aligned with Internet-based sales or the white-box gallery physical setting during the future?

Eric Heist: [no answer]

qi peng: Do you have any advice for up and coming BFA and MFA graduates who are graduating from art school and are starting to hunt for galleries to show their artwork? Do you think that there are too many talented artists within the system than what the top galleries especially in Chelsea or Brooklyn or other parts of New York City can handle? With the recent closures of so many once-solid galleries within the New York art world such as Rivington Arms and Roebling Hall, what trends are you seeing within the galleries and how they are presenting their work to the public?

Eric Heist: The reaction by commercial galleries to the current economic situation through alterations in their programming is difficult to gauge. My gallery, Schroeder Romero, is cooperating with Winkleman Gallery to produce editions.

My perspective has always been a do-it-yourself approach, and I think that will become more important and may receive more attention than in the past when the market ruled. I encourage my students to self-organize.

qi peng: What are some of your future dreams and upcoming exhibitions that Momenta Art will be experiencing? What are some potential challenges or past hardships that your gallery have overcome and that you are proud of?

Eric Heist: I still can’t believe I’ve been doing this since 1986. So I guess just surviving that long, figuring out what we want to show, having some small say in what is the make up of our visual culture is all very gratifying

qi peng: What are some of your hobbies outside of running your Williamsburg gallery space and other artistic endeavors? How does these things relate to your artistic and gallery projects? What are some of the practical challenges that gallery owners have to face inside or outside their spaces that they have to run as a business?

Eric Heist: Running a not for profit requires an awareness of the concerns of funders while negotiating your own vision within those parameters. That can be a challenge. It’s difficult to balance the unpredictability of funding with both running the space and keeping your life together. Sometimes I don’t get paid when we have dry spells. That used to be tolerable when it was just me and my wife. Its less tolerable now that we have a son. I teach part time at Pratt Institute and Laura teaches at Bennington College. So the teaching helps keep us going financially when things are bad at Momenta. But it does require balancing a lot of roles– teacher, gallery director, artist, father– all the time. And it takes a toll. It’s hard to give any of them up, though, because they are each fulfilling in unique but essential ways.

qi peng: Momenta Art is a current member of the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA). How has the membership helped your venue network with other galleries worldwide? How does your vision for your gallery differ from that of NADA? How are the missions similar? In what ways has NADA manifested a spirit democracy and adventuresomeness in being inclusive of galleries located in all sorts of places ranging from Portland to Paris?

Eric Heist: We participated in the Nada Art Fair from its inception in Miami up to last year. We switched to Pulse because they provided us a free space. Nada was very good to us, though. It was good for us to meet all the other participants and visitors from all over the world. But it got to be too costly.

Our approach to participating in art fairs as a not for profit has always been to provide counterpoint to the commercial nature of the art fair. One year we presented a large basket of woven currency by Jed Ela. It could be purchased for the actual value of the currency ($10,000.00) but the purchaser had to sign an agreement not to resell the work at a higher price. It meant we got nothing, the artist got nothing, the collector got nothing more than the intrinsic value. We were very pleased to be able to show work like that at an art fair. But as it got more expensive that became impossible. We are hoping to participate in the next Pulse fair again if they can provide us with free space again. We will be presenting the work of Hunter Reynolds, if so.

qi peng: Do you have anything else which you would like to share with fans of your artwork, Momenta Art, and other projects here?

Eric Heist: Please visit at the gallery anytime.

Thanks very much for your answering these questions. I am excited to be able to talk with you and hope to hear from you soon.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at qipengart@gmail.com
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