Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cathedrals of Pornography: The Paintings of Heidi Neff

The subject matter of Heidi Neff's cathedral paintings is not elusive. In bold color and fine, hard-edged detail, we see renditions of European cathedral ceilings—Italian Rococo and German Baroque. Except, in place of the hosts of angels or the ascension of Christ, we get bodies twined into sexual frenzy, men and women clutched together in copulation, oral sex, single women with legs bent wide, faces contorted with erotic passion. These figures twisting up into the creamy blue and white heavens or hanging in cruciform pattern above the altar are, as Heidi says, modeled directly from contemporary pornographic magazines. The effect, the juxtaposition, of the religious with the tawdry, 18th century Christian orthodoxy with 21st century sexual sale, is compelling, and engaging.

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.


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4:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Beautifully written, as always.

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Blogger Baltimore Interview said...

Thanks a lot for reading, Laura. And you're a real pal, make extra money.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Myfanwy Collins said...

Outstanding. I love her work. It's perfect (as is this interview).

7:11 AM  
Blogger Baltimore Interview said...

Thanks kindly, Myfanwy.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Patricia said...

Beautiful, this is so amazing, I feel such a passion in your writing and appreciation and respect for your subject matter, yet you continually allow the artist's work,to shine through, you create a landscape, really Joseph. just beautiful.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Patricia said...

and...just my opinion, I think, and I'm such a weirdo for saying this, I think the pieces on the website for Heidi's work should be bigger, the work is huge, in it's expression and I just wanted to stand beneath one of these ceilings. I found it interesting the progression of Heidi's work, the shift in her style in a way, it seems bolder now. I just think it's remarkable, but I want to see them bigger, you know, I'll just have to come and see them for myself.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Baltimore Interview said...

Hi, Patricia, thanks for the read and the comments. If you click on the images, you can get a larger view of the paintings. And you can also go to Heidi's website to look. I agree though, with such detailed work, it's great to see them in person.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Patricia said...

I do mean her website hon, I am amazed by Heidi's work, my son is seven, he's an artist, he is,and he saw these and went...woowowowoowowwoowow!!! and I enjoy Micheal's photography as well, such great work guys, all three of you.

10:08 AM  
Blogger xanthic said...


7:36 PM  
Blogger Mary Akers said...

This is a great article and the work is fascinating! Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Baltimore Interview said...

Thanks, Mary.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen Heidi Neff's work before, and really liked it, but I'm so glad I came across this article because hearing the background of the work really gives me an even greater appreciation for it.
Wonderfully written article!

1:05 PM  
Blogger Baltimore Interview said...

Thanks, Neff-fan Anonymous. Who are you?

7:43 AM  
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