Cathedrals of Pornography: The Paintings of Heidi Neff
Given the number of Heidi's works that deal with religion, it might not be surprising to know she grew up steeped in Christianity, her father a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor until Heidi was nine. After he left the ministry, Heidi says, "We spent a year going to every kind of Christian church, until we settled on a new one." At this point, it might be easy to say, Aha, the preacher's daughter! Your paintings, their graphic and profane sexuality, are meant as critiques of the church. And, the rather flashy, pop-art use of borrowed images, from pornography, politics, and television, do invite this kind of interpretation, the paintings' humorous conflations tempting us to mockery. To stop there though, at irony and church bashing, would be to miss much in Heidi's work.
In her Manuscript series, Heidi takes medieval or other religious manuscript forms and contemporizes them with events out of the daily newspaper, the rescue helicopters of the Hurricaine Katrina tragedy, the World Trade Center in flames. In one of these paintings, "Save Me Lord," on a background of mountainous terrain both tropical and perhaps Middle Eastern, Heidi paints various phrases in a kind of Gothic script. "Save me Lord, for I am drowning" says one, and another, "Acts of God and manmade terrors compete for attention." In this work, it is again tempting to see only a harsh criticism of religion, a pie in the sky entity conspicuously missing whenever it is needed most. But to jump to this conclusion is to miss the truly heartfelt passion in these phrases, the sincere emotion that drives us to, or away, from the spirit in times of disaster and upheaval.
"When do people start to get a real feeling for religion," Heidi says, "When do they start to question what's out there? I mean, huge natural disasters are still called 'acts of God.'" For Heidi, the religious aspect of her paintings are meant as a seeking out, an asking of these essential questions. When she paints a column of open, screaming mouths in "My God" alongside the faces of terrified children, an enormous wave crashing into a city, and some sort of mythological creature with angel's wings, we are invited to take this not so much as a criticism of faith as an exploration of it, the way in which it works in our lives. My God? asks the painting, Where are you? What are you? Why are you?
As Heidi makes a point to tell me, "I have an issue with irony. I think I'm pretty earnest." For her, the cathedral ceilings and manuscript series are not meant as an outsider's slap to the face of the church, not as a cool, smirking commentary or angry harangue, but as an up-close study of the tragedy and comedy of passion. The passions of love, lust, the search for spiritual meaning are common to us all. And given this democracy of feeling, Heidi's goal is to make her work as accessible as possible. As she says, "I want people to be able to appreciate my art who don't have an art background." It's in the exploration of the basic human themes of religion, ecstasy, a questioning of the order of the world, that brings her art near, gathering the cathedrals of Europe, the tragedies of Indonesia and New Orleans, the experiences of the minister's daughter into a series of boldly rendered canvases whose subject is us.