The subtle dynamism and asymmetrical symmetry of Angela Heisch’s geometric paintings

New York-based artist Angela Heisch began her journey into painting working under the influence of surrealist artists such as René Magritte, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo. Although her works today exist principally within the realm of abstraction, with their geometric shapes, stark colour relations and sharply delineated forms, her paintings retain a quality of the surreal in their subtle evocation of the otherworldly and in the Carrington-esque glow that clings to her forms. Angela says, “My paintings always have a gaze”. In that light, what her paintings present is not a fixed arrangement of shapes, but a dynamic interplay of breathing, sentient bodies that are fluid and shifting. It is this protean capacity of Angela’s forms that is of utmost importance within her work. Her paintings are, in her words, “open to many possibilities”. They are flatness with the possibility of depth, stillness with the possibility of movement, abstraction with the possibility of figuration, solidity with the possibility of softness.

At first glance, Angela’s paintings appear to subscribe to a geometric perfection of formal composition, mathematically mapped-out proportions and symmetry. Indeed, the grid system as a compositional device remains, Angela tells us, an “essential symbol” in her work, around which the painting’s other elements are ordered. What becomes apparent on closer inspection of Angela’s images, however, is that the structural organization and geometric arrangement of her forms serve not to deliver a vision of perfection, but to provide a framework in which to subtly diverge from that vision. The uniformity of the paintings is offset by slight variations between forms and their positioning, and by the fine touches of detail that Angela adds in the final stages of her painting. Tiny, singular dots of colour bring an additional nuance to the painted space by appearing in corners, at edges and beside larger forms. Delicate, threadlike lines similarly serve to disrupt the stillness of the compositions, acting almost like ripples in water, vibrations in the atmosphere, threads, tendrils or hairs caught in a breeze. Far from undermining the harmony of Angela’s painted forms, these wrinkles in the works’ compositional perfection allow for a fluidity of movement within which the elements of the painting attain a greater resonance and interactivity with one another.

Angela’s forms vibrate in the space between that which is constructed and that which unfurls organically. Indeed, she gathers much of her inspiration by observing the patterns by which nature and living organisms are assembled, particularly plant life. There are certainly distinct parallels between the perfect imperfection one finds in nature and the asymmetrical symmetry of Angela’s paintings. In her work The Iris Slide, painted last year, the convergence of forms upon a glowing focal point delivers a sense of something blooming, emerging, while simultaneously retaining the ambiguity of abstraction.

Living and working in the midst of New York’s vibrant artistic scene, Angela has had her work displayed in galleries across the city, as well as in other states and in international shows. She has participated in residencies in New York, New Jersey and Virginia, and is currently working towards solo projects in New York and Montreal.

AMM: Hi Angela, who would you say have been your principal artistic mentors—either in your life or in the ranks of art history—as you’ve developed as a painter?

AH: My earliest painting influence was probably René Magritte. When I was first starting out in college, I chose “The Lovers” by Magritte as my master copy. This painting in particular really struck me, it was the first time I felt there were more questions than answers. I really liked that feeling, and it remains an important intention in my work. As I’ve shifted into abstraction, my earliest and most consistent influences have been Paul Klee and Joan Miró. Both Klee and Miró have such a seemingly vast and playful language, which was something very instrumental for me as I found my footing in abstraction. Along with Magritte, Klee, and Miró, I spend a lot of time looking at Lee Bontecou, Giorgio de Chirico, Leonora Carrington, Horst Antes, Remedios Varo, Hilma af Klint, Roger Brown, Georgia O’Keeffe, Domenico Gnoli, and Naum Gabo.

AMM: How do you go about translating concepts, ideas and images into your unique visual language of shapes and colour-relations?

AH: It begins with some form of observation. Mainly I’m paying attention to specific shapes and patterns occurring in architecture, artwork, and nature. I don’t typically seek to replicate a shape or form I’ve observed in its entirety, but rather convey a sense or emotion. Most of the time my paintings are a hodge-podge of many different observations and, as I move throughout a body of work, there are multiple iterations of that language in multiple paintings.

AMM: At first glance, many of your paintings seem to be totally symmetrical, yet on closer examination it becomes clear that the compositions are not rigidly uniform but subtly off-balance. We notice a few, for example, in which you add a tiny, almost imperceptible dot of colour to a side or corner of the composition. Can you talk about how you use compositional and chromatic techniques to offset the expectations of the viewer and disrupt the gaze in this way?

AH: I’ve always been very drawn to symmetry, as I think most of us are. A perfectly symmetrical object appears uninterruptible and unmoving. But things are never that simple, and I don’t want my paintings to represent just one thing. The tiny dots you referenced are always the last element added to a painting. These dots along with the wispy lines you see dangling about are parts of the painting that give them a sense of fragility, as well as movement and breath. These subtle additions invite the viewer to come closer, and allow the image to be more interactive.

‘The Drain’, oil on canvas over panel, 16 x 20 inches

AMM: It strikes us that this kind of perfect imperfection seen in your paintings is similar to the asymmetrical symmetry often encountered in nature—indeed, some of your patterns are evocative of leaves and flora, or of nature on a micro scale in your amoeba-like, cellular shapes, or even of the universe’s macro elements in some of your planet-like orbs and celestial bodies. Do you draw on the patterns and structures of organic, natural materials and objects in your work?

AH: Definitely. Plant life and the nature of growth is a big inspiration in my work. It’s funny you mention micro-organisms because I usually think of the figures in my work as large scale, regardless of the actual size of the painting. But to that point, I often think about the physiological tendencies of living organisms, and how they order themselves, coming together to form a greater whole. In my most recent work, this coming together or unraveling is from a central point, with a figure often made of many fractals or planes bound together. This often feels cellular, like many small parts coming together to form a whole.

AMM: In opposition to this, there is definitely a meticulously measured regularity imposed on your paintings, not unlike the methodology of architectural studies. Have you been influenced by architectural techniques of spatial organization?

AH: In many ways yes, though I think today the rigidity of architectural organization is not as prominent. I’m interested in methods of organization and, specifically, the grid has always been an essential symbol in my work. More specifically, it’s been about the mechanics of the grid as a way to impose order or, more importantly, demonstrate a shift or breaking of order. Similar to architectural studies, there is always at least one line of support, where other elements in the painting are positioned or grow from. This line or point sets the tone for how the space in my paintings is organised, as well as determining how the painting is balanced.

AMM: There is a very playful and dynamic element to many of your paintings—an impression of fluid movement, almost. Do you tend to think of your images as singular happenings within a flow of movement or more as inanimate objects?

AH: I think of these figures as caught in the midst of movement. This can vary from movement as a result of a slightly breezy atmosphere, or a chaotic unraveling caused by the push or pull of a force. To me they are living, breathing entities, although sometimes appearing constructed instead of organically grown.

AMM: Your paintings are simultaneously intricate and restrained—bold forms and a minimalistic or monochromatic palette undercut by careful shading and painstaking touches of detail. How do you maintain this balance? And how do you decide when a painting is finished, or when you’ve done enough?

AH: Restraint is a huge thing in my process. It’s easy for me to become absent minded while painting, so I constantly have to check in with the composition as I work through figuring out color. I often reevaluate what is necessary. This is the majority of my painting process, and is sometimes fruitless but other times lots of fun. The details I add to a painting at the very end might not be visible from a photo or even at a distance, but for me they really make or break a painting. They are pretty painstaking but they’re also playful, and bring the painting to life. A painting is usually finished when I’ve figured out the color. Color is kind of everything after composition is sorted out.

I’ve recently realised how important it is for my paintings to not offer up everything upon first glance. Once I’ve achieved all that, then the painting is usually finished.

‘The Surelys’, oil on canvas over panel, 9 x 12 inches

AMM: Despite the tendency of your work towards abstraction, your forms, subtle shading and use of light to create glows and auras around shapes puts us in mind of the painterly techniques exercised by surrealist painters, for example Leonora Carrington. Is there a correlation there?

AH: Leonora Carrington is certainly one of my favorite artists. I think about her paintings often, along with Magritte and other surrealist work. Leonora Carrington’s imagery contains all these odd characters, like cloaked figures with heads that resemble moths, but also fish, but also kites. I love all those connotations. There’s often an absent but direct gaze coming from these figures. Although my work is very different formally from hers, I often think of the glowing circular shapes in my paintings as eyes. My paintings always have a gaze, and a direct one at that, but it’s usually pretty hollow. Similar to the figures in many surrealist paintings, I don’t want the figures in my work to be categorised as one thing. They’re open to many possibilities.

AMM: Your paintings are often suggestive of multiple layers and levels of depth, as though several slides or lenses have been placed on top of one another to produce intersecting and overlapping shapes. Can you tell us about how your work plays with depth-perception?

AH: Sure—I think my paintings are at their best when the space doesn’t make complete sense. Since there is a formal clarity to the work, I like to disrupt the sense of space, like the ground in a painting is fighting with itself a bit, creating that push and pull tension. Space is pretty gradual in my work because I want the figure or central focus to feel a part of its environment, almost like it’s emerging or being submerged with forceful action.

AMM: Where do size and scale come into your work? Do you have a preference when it comes to working big or working small? How does scale alter your process?

AH: I go back and forth, and each format has its challenges. It depends on what I have coming up and what the space allows for. As I mentioned, I think of the figures in my work as large scale, or zoomed in, even when they are physically presented in a smaller format.

I like that small scale work forces the viewer to get up close and look at the surface and detail in the work, which is something I feel is lost occasionally as the work is scaled up. Lately, larger paintings are a bit more difficult for me, but that has come after struggling with small scale works for many years, and feeling like I needed to become more acquainted with that scale. I do really enjoy the physical movement a large painting requires, and in a lot of ways seeing my work on a larger scale feels more appropriate to the imagery.

‘Bend At The Light’, oil on canvas over panel, 18 x 24 inches

AMM: How do texture, colour and form intersect in your work? Do you intend these elements to work together or in contrast to one another—in harmony or in dissonance?

AH: Overall I think these elements work together to create more harmony than dissonance. In terms of the color shifts throughout my work, I try to push a very clear and often bright color into a kind of nothing color, before resurfacing as something heavier but still luminous. This creates a sort of bend or pull in the midst of two color shifts, which I suppose can read as dissonance, however the shift is very gradual and usually corresponds with some formal element in the work. So I’m not sure I can confidently say it’s one or the other.

AMM: How do you plan for a painting? Do you make sketches, plan your palette, build up layers slowly?

AH: I typically start with a rough sketch, which gets worked out in thumbnails in my sketchbook. Sometimes I make more finished pencil drawings based on one of these thumbnails, but most of the time I go directly into translating that sketch onto a painting. The painting often ends up looking quite different from the sketch, but that part of the process is exciting for me. I have a hard time making the exact same image twice, and translating an image from sketch to painting has become a constant process of re-evaluating and shifting throughout the painting process.

Color is pretty intuitive and not planned out, although I stick to a fairly limited color palette. This is often some version of a complementary pair along with a few variable colors. I build up layers relatively thin, and slowly. I like some irregularity in the surface, but ultimately finishing quite smooth and flat.

AMM: When it comes to shaping forms in your paintings, do you use stencils, grid lines or rulers to create regularity or do you allow more freedom for accidents in the process?

AH: I don’t use stencils or grid lines, but occasionally I use a ruler and compass. The ruler is more to find the center of the painting, as well as some guiding points to achieve some sort of symmetry and balance. I use a compass to draw both the circles and occasionally curved lines in my work. More than anything, I’m hand drawing most of the preliminary lines but still not really allowing for accidents in this beginning stage.

AMM: What are the most important things you need with you in your studio when you’re painting?

AH: All the basics, but most importantly headphones so I can listen to podcasts.

‘The Iris Slide’, oil on canvas over panel, 18 x 24 inches

AMM: Is it important for your paintings to be encountered in the flesh? How does this alter the viewing experience as opposed to, say, seeing it on a screen, or in print?

AH: Yes, definitely. The surface of my work is important to me and something I pay close attention to. My paintings have a very handmade quality that doesn’t really resonate in photos, and is something you can see better in person. Those wispy lines and balancing dots mentioned above are also something hard to pick up on unless you either stare at a photo of the work for a while or you’re spending time with it in person. I also really like there to be a shift in the viewer’s perception of my work based on where they’re standing. At a distance, my paintings look more rigid and graphic, but as you come closer they soften. I don’t want my work to be impenetrable, and they’re way less likely to come across that way in person.

AMM: Do you find group and solo shows to be impactful on the ways in which you work?

AH: Of course—putting together a solo show is much more about presenting a cohesive body of work. I don’t know what the work is going to look like together before it’s finished, but it is important that there is good tension and balance among the paintings together. When making a painting specifically for a group show, there is a bit more pressure on that one piece in a lot of ways. I kind of think of it as my spokesperson, and want it to properly represent my work. I like for a painting in a group show to be a bit more of a statement. Whereas in a solo setting, I don’t want every painting to have the same weight, but they should complement one another, and allow for their differences.

AMM: What is it like being part of the NYC art scene? Is there much scope for collaboration within your practice or do you prefer to work alone?

AH: I think the art scene in New York feels very much like a community. There are so many little pockets, and it’s pretty easy to find peers that you feel your work is in conversation with. Living here has taught me how many different roads there are to some form of success as an artist, and I feel like artists gladly offer support and advice to one another. My work over the past few years hasn’t really allowed for collaboration within the actual work. I certainly love working alone, as most painters probably do, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to some form of collaboration in the future.

AMM: Are there any other artists working around you currently whose work you particularly resonate with?

AH: Plenty! Off the top of my head though, the recent Alma Allen show at Kasmin kind of blew my mind. Her forms seem so deliberate and intentional but fresh and organic at once. I also really loved Donald Moffet’s recent show at Marianne Boesky for some of the same reasons.

AMM: How do you envision your artistic practice developing in the future? Any exciting plans you can share with us for when the world is a little calmer?

AH: That’s hard to say, but right now I’m focusing on slowing down and refining the work where it is now. As far as shows go, everything’s up in the air at the moment due to the Corona virus, but I’m working towards a solo show with Project Pangée in Montreal this June, and another solo with Davidson Gallery in New York this September.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Locked Waves’, oil on canvas over panel, 36 x 48 inches