December 07, 2015
As one of the most iconic musicians of the past five decades, Neil Young’s contributions to Canadian iconography and to the canon of rock ‘n’ roll are irrefutable. Having penned some of the most poignant protest anthems, fragile love songs, and self-aware balladry of a generation, Young has long been the sort of singular voice that aches under the weight of social realism and tenderly illuminates that which exists at the core of the human condition.
To most music fans, Young is something of a legend, but to Los Angeles-based visual artist Jenice Heo, he’s a life-long friend. Both she and her husband and creative partner, Gary Burden—who is best known for designing some of rock’s most iconic album covers, including Young’s After The Gold Rush and Joni Mitchell’s Blue—have known and worked closely with Young for decades.
After the three took home a Grammy Award for their combined efforts on the Neil Young Archives Vol. 1 Box Set in 2010, Heo was compelled to begin work on what would eventually become known as the NEIL YOUNG SERIES.
Comprised of thirteen oil paintings on found objects and mixed media assemblages, the series was originally inspired by a small scale assemblage titled “NEIL Letters,” which appeared on the cover of the box set. “Neil loved the Wallace Berman series with the hand holding the transistor radio,” says Heo. “When we couldn’t get the rights to use his art on the box set, Neil asked us to do a rendition of the hand but with cards, using various images from his archive. He loved that first piece and so I was encouraged to move forward with no trepidation.”
Each of the 13 assemblages, which will be on display at STRUCK Contemporary in Toronto until February 2016, takes its title from a Neil Young song, and seeks to provide a unique and personal glimpse into the heart and soul of the man who wrote them. “The intriguing part of assemblage is that the whole picture represents the sum of its distinct parts,” says Heo. “It is collecting relevant images and putting them together in an informative way to depict Neil’s life. My intention is that the attached objects retain their individual character and soul, yet contribute toward a gestalt that unifies the entire visual field. I like things to disappear, sometimes reappear, but ultimately blend into a patchwork of sorts.”
For Heo, creating such a patchwork proved to be a deeply personal process. “This series came to be at an intense time in our lives,” she notes. “Gary was going through treatment for an illness, which he is clear of now, but he was laid up most of the time. It was a solitary and difficult time for us. The heavy use of black oil paint [throughout the series] represents the depth of what we were living through at that time. Thank God I had the canvas to go to, it was my therapy.”
“Jenice really put her life on hold to take care of me,” adds Burden. “But throughout that time she was also filled with inspiration and so she carved out a tiny niche in the corner of our beautiful little cottage in Malibu, which was in a grove of oaks and sycamores, and she worked. She made a lot of drawings, fleshed out her ideas and then started collecting materials and buying canvases to express the things that were coming to her. We used to go to swap meets, yard sales, garage sales, and those sorts of things to find elements that would fit. One time we even went to a swap meet with Neil and he walked around the grounds with us carrying all of these objects, so he was engaged in a big way. It’s funny because Jenice is this very little girl, but she was hefting around these big pieces of metal and all of these things that were eventually included in the assemblages, and over the course of those six months to a year she created this really remarkable series.”
In her work, Heo’s deep layering of paint and objects simultaneously reveals and conceals various aspects of itself while engaging the viewer in a process of visual excavation. Such a search turns up artifacts like scraps and snippets of old newspapers, faded photographs, model electric trains, aged book covers, small paintings within the larger ones, bird feathers, rusted metal, old signage and ’45 records, all things that Neil loves. What’s more, Heo has “secretly” buried other small objects within the architecture of each canvas so that the emotionally potent objects may serve as a source of nourishment that, though invisible, nevertheless deepen and transform the visual rhythm of the works.
“The process of creating these works involved a sometimes intuitive and sometimes more consciously strategized process of building up their surfaces, juxtaposing objects, painting over them, and finding the visual rhythm of each piece,” explains Heo. “Visual rhythm, as in musical composition, creates a beat to produce the look and feel by constantly moving the eye. It involves positive shapes working with negative space and so just as the objects from ‘the real world’ project forward in space, I sometimes hide small objects under a piece’s layers. So there is an outward and inward motion that I’m striving for, that, I hope, gives my paintings the sense of being breathing, living things.”
Though Heo confesses that the hidden objects may have also been her way of retaining a little secret of her own, there is truth in the sentiment that what you can’t see is often even more important than what you can.
Despite her proximity to Young, Heo has long found a deep source of inspiration in her friend’s cherished songs. “Music stimulates the unconscious mind. It allows me to lose myself and be immersed in the painting,” she says. “Certainly music also presents layers of sounds, textures, and meaning, and that ‘dangerous’ zone, say, between the lyrics in a song that borders what’s private and what’s personal, material that may be meaningful only to the songwriter versus what he or she wants to publically share, adds an intriguing tension and mystery to a song. Music for me provides a direct link to the creative source, which is one reason why working on the NEIL YOUNG SERIES was so meaningful to me. Hopefully my assemblages share the kind of resolution of complex feeling and emotion into clarity, accessibility, even simplicity in the best sense of the word, that I love so much in Neil Young’s music.”
“This series was never really meant to, in a conventional sense, illustrate Neil’s songs,” adds Burden. “It was always about expressing what Neil meant to Jenice and I think that’s what makes it so true.”
By nature, we are constantly deducing the sum of our lives through the filter of another’s gaze, however, we are rarely gifted the chance to see it rendered as beautifully as in Heo’s NEIL YOUNG SERIES. When asked her thoughts on the significance of her own work and friendship on Neil’s life, Heo modestly replied: “Neil has expressed how true the art felt for him, but his creative process is insulated within him; it’s the other way around where he is the influencer.”