Jay Heikes, Beyond Zebra, 2016, pigmented mortar, burlap, salt, latex, glue, steel, slag, rubber hose, wood, 37 × 29 × 1 1/2".

Jay Heikes, Beyond Zebra, 2016, pigmented mortar, burlap, salt, latex, glue, steel, slag, rubber hose, wood, 37 × 29 × 1 1/2".

Jay Heikes

Jay Heikes, Beyond Zebra, 2016, pigmented mortar, burlap, salt, latex, glue, steel, slag, rubber hose, wood, 37 × 29 × 1 1/2".

“Zorro was here!” a friend quipped upon seeing the images in “No future ism,” the Jay Heikes exhibition that inaugurated Federica Schiavo Gallery’s new Milan venue. Who could disagree? The thick paintings-cum-sculptures by this Minneapolis-based artist were studded with a series of zigzags, sometimes delineated in copper wire, sometimes drawn with iron filings and glue, sometimes simply carved into the depth of the material. The works as a whole (all from 2016 and titled Zs except one, Beyond Zebra) seemed to convey that the masked avenger had relentlessly written his signature on every available surface.

Heikes would probably not take offense at the comment, given that he does not turn up his nose at references to popular culture, much less irony. In the deliberately vague press release, the artist evokes the space of freedom and creativity accessed via sleep, the onomatopoeic rendering of which is, precisely, “zzz.” And he speaks of “zyzzyva,” that is, “a cartoon depiction of male genitalia in bug form.” (Singled out in the press release, the bizarre insect appeared in the only photographic work in the show, where it was equipped with a series of cartoon speech bubbles. Only one of these could be deciphered: it contained a Z).

The final clue that Heikes provided for interpreting the letter-logo that marks these works lay in the title (though ambiguously preceded by a no): future ism = Futurism. Think of the verbal-visual experimentations of F. T. Marinetti and company, of their recourse to onomatopoeia; and then there is the long, twentieth-century genealogy of artistic investigations in which words (or individual letters) have been used for both semantic and purely graphic values. But in the end there is the feeling that in pursuing this line of thought, one runs the risk of losing sight of the essential core of Heikes’s work, his almost alchemical concept of transformation (of materials, first of all). Viewers could get closer to the heart of the problem by following another possible lineage of the works on display: the pictorial research that transformed painting into object by way of stratification, from Dubuffet’s “texturologies” to Dieter Roth’s crusts of organic substances. Heikes is probably more at ease in the latter’s company, with especially given the realization that for him, the materials he stratifies matter more than the idea of exploring a boundary between painting and sculpture. And even more than the materials themselves, he cares about their provenance and cultural associations within an itinerary that embraces alchemy and industrial chemistry, archeology and bricolage.

While in his recent show at the Grimm Gallery in Amsterdam (“Necrophilia,” 2015–16) Heikes resorted to asphaltum, an oily, tar-like substance used both in printmaking and in ancient Egyptian embalming, here he seemed to choose to focus on the present, employing materials—mortar, cement, burlap, foam rubber, neoprene, rubber tubing—that are more evocative of a building site than of the workshop of an alchemist or an Egyptian embalmer. On the other hand, using fabric dyes and pigments mixed with mortar, he sometimes achieved effects of notable delicacy; watercolor-like hues alternated with black or gray monochromes. “No future ism” sacrificed the exuberant variety of his previous solo shows for an unusual uniformity (and for this reason it was not the best show for newcomers wanting to understand the diverse articulations of his work). But in this instance, a sense of variation emerged through subtleties of texture and color, which in other circumstances might have remained in the background.

Simone Menegoi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.