Los Angeles

View of “Paul Heyer,” 2013.

View of “Paul Heyer,” 2013.

Paul Heyer

View of “Paul Heyer,” 2013.

Oarfish, a twenty-seven-foot-tall soft sculpture representing the titular deep-sea creature, its silver silk body speckled with sumi-ink brushstrokes, presided over Paul Heyer’s second solo exhibition at Night Gallery. With a rippling, fiber-optic fin that glowed red in the darkened space, the fish was a curiosity among a show that featured fourteen semi-abstract paintings. The serpentlike form was borderline hokey, something you might find in a puppet theater or at a child’s birthday party. Yet the quietly symbolic allure of the fish—a mysterious and rarely seen creature that lives in ocean depths of 3,300 feet and is likely the basis of much sea-serpent lore—seemed a sincere theme for the artist, and its inclusion offered an explicitly figurative reference point for a body of work that shape-shifted between abstraction and representation.

The paintings included in this exhibition varied in scale and media; a group of four towering works on stretched silk contrasted with nine considerably smaller oil paintings with sand and seashells (a recurring material in Heyer’s work) scattered across their surfaces. At nearly eight feet tall, the silk paintings each depict a flurry of snow, white spots dotting fields of pink, white, black, and deep blue; Snow (dawn) (all works 2013), for example, is a peach-hued diptych sprinkled with white marks. Heyer painted grayish contours along the outlines of the stretcher bars underneath, creating a shadowy definition that approximates windowpanes while calling attention to pictorial space and the construction of the painting itself. Installed nearby were two wooden chairs, understated readymades that further demarcated a domestic realm. Spotlit and painted in warm hues, the paintings appeared to be illuminated from behind—a play with light, shadow, and immateriality that invoked Robert Irwin’s early paintings, which similarly strive to represent illuminated fields through modulated colored dots. But whereas Irwin aimed to dissolve the perceptible boundary between the artwork and the room in which it hangs, Heyer instead uses his object-like canvases to set up an illusionistic architecture.

Balancing these quiet wintry scenes, the assemblage compositions with shells and sand move between Malibu-style fantasy and standard gestural abstraction. Although considerably flatter than the others, Shell Interior I, a moody composition in purple and grays with tiny flecks of silver foil, was the standout in this group. The juxtaposition between these ornate compositions and the anemic silk paintings set up a classic narrative joining the hushed privacy of winter with the splendors of summer.

Further extending the boundaries of his practice, which shifts between media as much as between expressionist and Minimalist tendencies, Heyer arranged a performance for the opening; he enlisted a young man he had met at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood to sing a verse from the Chicago house track after which the show is titled: “The Sun Can’t Compare.” The song (and its melancholic delivery) speaks to feelings of romantic longing, perhaps loneliness or alienation, which underscored this show. Like the reclusive oarfish, the young performer conveyed a sense of solitary, interior brooding, and the inclusion of his act prevented the show from slipping into whimsy, opening up a potential reading of Heyer’s paintings as a reflection on adolescent subjectivity—that angsty, pent-up identity in flux, which swings between a winter of discontent and a full surrender to exuberance.

It should be noted, too, that the week after Heyer’s opening, two oarfish carcasses were found along the Southern California coastline, rare discoveries that happen but once a decade, typically when the creature is in distress. In proximity to these events, Heyer’s strange and out-of-place sculpture exudes an oddly prescient aura.

Catherine Taft