When I was in high school, I got a book on Impressionism for Christmas one year. I can’t remember who wrote the introduction, but I have always remembered one thing the author wrote — he wrote that the Penetrables of Jesús Rafael Soto were like “Monets in space.” When a Penetrable was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2014, I wanted to see for myself whether this assertion was true. The work didn’t quite live up to the grandiose claim made for it by that writer. But the phrase has stuck with me ever since.
I’m going to revive it now with a small difference: The sculptural objects in Katy Heinlein’s show, Snake Eyes, at McClain Gallery in Houston, are like Ellsworth Kellys in space.
When I think of an Ellsworth Kelly painting, I think of large monochrome shapes, usually combining curves and straight edges. The work is insistently minimal, but the color is rich and intense. That intensity is present in Heinlein’s sculpture. In this show, Heinlein, a Houston-based artist, combines straight-edges with curves — sometimes the fabric itself has curves, as in Sausage Fingers and Snake Eyes — and sometimes the curves are created by the fabric flopping down onto the floor. The floppiest of all is Lobe, a piece that looks like its name. Imagine a colorful abstraction of the largest, droopiest ears ever. (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind.)
These hang from wall-mounted aluminum and wood structures that Heinlein has carefully covered with fabric. “Covered” is not quite the right word — Heinlein has created a form-fitting wrapping, carefully sewn and tailored to fit. Sometimes, where the structure is bent in a right angle, there is a very slight bunching of the fabric exterior. But otherwise, it is a tight, perfect fit. The fabric’s behavior is carefully designed so that it doesn’t display some of the qualities we think of as an essential characteristic of cloth: there are almost no folds or wrinkles.
The one real exception to this rule is Fig Leaf, in which the fabric hangs from the aluminum support in such a way that its folds allow one to see both sides of the fabric at once — burgundy on the outside and orange underneath. This two-color aspect is generally true of the works in the show. They’re one solid color on one side and another on the other side, with one color outward-facing and the other color facing inward. And with many of the works, you can’t see the inside color unless you make an effort to peer at it from an oblique angle — looking down at it from above is in Sausage Fingers, or sidelong with Arm’s Length, or the jocosely-titled Sideboob. Sometimes these oblique views require the viewer get very close to the wall — all of the works are attached to a wall in some way.
Heinlein’s color use is key to the work. The colors are intense — even the somewhat neutral colors that she uses to cover the aluminum supports have a strange intensity. The light blue and green on the aluminum support for Fig Leaf are an interesting combination, and works very well with the burgundy and orange fabric draped on them. But perhaps more important is the fact of the heaviness of the fabric. It looks like it could be used for drapery. It’s very opaque. And its vertical weight keeps the fabric from undulating, so that each piece presents uninterrupted fields of color.
And it’s this sense of fields of color that makes me think of Ellsworth Kelly. But the drapery comparison keeps coming back to me, too. And these aren’t cheap curtains from Target — they read like very elegant home furnishings. (And after all, doesn’t that describe a lot of art sold in galleries?) Snake Eyes and Sausage Fingers drape beautifully. And Arm’s Length and Sideboob, because they have long cut-away parts, remind me also of wearable garments. It seems like a cliché to admit it, but these minimalist fabric sculptures have a lot to do with fashion.
So: minimalist Ellworth Kellys in space, or elegant fashion objects? I think Heinlein’s sculpture is both. This group feels a little less sprawling than her earlier work — it is more precise, like Kelly. Heinlein, in her earlier work, was more willing to let fabric be fabric. It celebrated its folds and bunches. She allowed those sculptures to flop down casually onto the floor, but here, Lobe, Arm’s Length and Snake Eyes clean up that impulse. They formalize it, and make it deliberate. Perhaps this direction is a conscious nod towards minimalism. And in their elegance and intensity, a nod to Kelly.