HEATHER BRAMMEIER’s flowing, curling lines—rendered two-dimensionally in paint and three-dimensionally in PEX piping—evoke vines, waves, hair, intestines, smoke and even cursive writing. Her paintings and installations are unified by the balance abstraction and representation, or expressions of the internal and the external. Heather earned her BFA from Bradley University in 2000 and her MFA from University of Pennsylvania in 2002. Her representational works will be exhibited alongside abstract reinterpretations in She Defines Herself, a solo exhibition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that opens on June 26, 2015. A rooftop installation at the South Bend Museum of Art in Indiana will be on display from June, 2015–May 2017. Adorn, another rooftop installation, will be on view for the month of September 2015 at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago. Most recently, she was chosen to take part in the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art's SENSE exhibition, as part of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Heather is an Associate Professor of Art at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where she lives.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a little about your process in general. Are you a sketcher/planner or an intuitive maker?
Heather Brammeier: I love planning and sketching, but I always know the finished works will be very different from the plans. At the beginning of a studio day, I allow myself to follow any line of thought and imagine ambitious new directions. I mentally undertake any project and see where it goes, forgetting about physical limitations, even discounting the effects of gravity. It’s just like when I was a little girl, trying to balance huge Lego houses on a tiny base. This over-reaching is part of my process, because it gives me interesting problems to work on. I often find myself looking at a sketch and asking myself how I can achieve similar results with simpler, more direct means. This is how I devise new ways of working, or new ways of addressing current work.
OPP: I'm utterly enamored with the installations that you refer to as Painting in Space.
Personally, I think of these more as sculptural quilts than paintings
because of your decision to include found objects like chairs,
suitcases, and balls as well as repurposed art work. Why do you think of
these works as paintings instead of installations?
HB: I tend to see visual characteristics—shape, color, space—before naming objects or identifying things. This makes me very aware of the way our brain flattens visual input into an image. When I started assembling objects to make the paintings in space, I imagined myself “fattening” my paintings by giving them dimension and then “flattening” them again through photography. During construction, I definitely anticipate how the photograph will flatten out all dimension (as the brain does). The paintings in space still hold up as installation in an exhibition setting, but my primary focus is the image created, rather than an environment. Your term “sculptural quilts” is apt, as it describes both the dimensional and flattened qualities. I have an interest in the area between two and three dimensions, and I have explored sewing to work in that realm.
OPP: You return again and again to loopy mass of curls and coils in your Invented Landscapes and PEX sculptures. At times, these organic lines evoke vines, waves, hair, intestines, smoke and even cursive writing. Could you talk about your attraction to this form, as well as its counterpart, the triangle, that shows up in many of your installations?
Loops and biomorphic forms have the potential to refer to interior and
exterior simultaneously. I welcome all the associations you identified. I
tell people I am “aggressively introspective.” I’m being a little
self-deprecating, but also completely honest. My introspection over the
years has led me to view experience of the mind, body and physical world
as very fluid and continuous. My imagery can easily shift from being
read as interior to exterior space and from mental struggle to physical
I use circles and triangles to evoke strength and stability. Just as the stability in our lives can turn quickly into chaos, carefully measured structures can transform into masses of lines that spin out of control. My return again and again to biomorphic tangles creates a physical manifestation of the constant search for meaning that we all experience.
OPP: Your Masterworks Interpretations began are based on famous paintings of the St. George and the Dragon story. In paintings like Waterfall (With Moreau's St. George) and Ribbed Cave (With Uccello),
you reinterpret isolated parts of the original paintings and place
them inside your characteristic coils. But in 2015, you've made a major
stylistic shift with drawing diptychs like She Defines Herself
(Uccello's Princess, Tura's Princess) and She Defines Herself (Bordone's Princess, Jess). What led to this shift?
The masterwork reinterpretations began a few years ago when I used the
language of biomorphic abstraction to reinterpret a master’s
composition. I recently started allowing myself to start copying
portions of the masterworks. I began to see that representational
imagery can provide metaphor for internal struggles, just as abstraction
does. This gave me permission to mine personal experience—through
snapshots—and combine it with the masterwork imagery I was studying.
These drawings were my way of breaking through the barrier I had set
between abstraction and representation, but they do not represent an
abandonment of abstraction. My plan is that the portraits will lead to
paintings that combine abstraction with representation.
Incorporating the study of masterworks into my studio practice has taught me things I didn’t anticipate. While I am nothing like an art historian, I think I may understand now how connected an art historian feels to artwork. I also feel like I understand portraiture in a way that I never had before. A similar sense of longing arises in working from either a snapshot or a reproduction of a painting, as both have limited visual information. When drawing from a snapshot, I have to strain to find detail in the image, but I am compelled by my interest in the woman pictured. When I draw a woman from a reproduction of a painting, I am also constantly straining to see more in the image, but I begin without knowing the woman. The process of visual searching leads me to feel more connection with the woman in the painting. The gap separating real women I know and fictional women I can never meet is closed by visual study and interpretation.
No matter the medium or approach, I tend to take disparate elements and put them on equal footing. In the paintings in space, objects stored in my basement are considered raw material on footing with oil paintings. In the masterwork interpretations, my approach to abstraction and the representational approach of the master artist are both on the table for me to use. The women in the conte portraits are considered equally, whether they are toddlers, young women or princesses. I put aside the distinctions that most people would consider first in order to present more universal qualities. Each woman’s expression suggests complicated thoughts and even inner conflict. I like to pair these portraits as diptychs, but I also like grouping them in different ways. Exhibited in one long line, the women seem almost to talk to one another, and the cropped horses and dragons from masterworks create a sense of absurdity.
You have two upcoming rooftop installations, one at the South Bend
Museum of Art and one at the Lilllstreet Art Center in Chicago. What are
you planning? What's exciting about a rooftop space and what's
HB: I actually have three rooftop projects coming up! I was just chosen to do a piece at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I will be working in their Terrace exhibition space on the roof of the building. My outdoor installations utilize PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) because it is very resistant to the elements. PEX is more flexible and light than PVC and more rigid than most hosing, so it holds curves very well. The cross-linked fibers allow me to drill holes through the PEX; red and blue zip ties are threaded through to hold curves in place. I make large, elegant tangles that can drape across walls and tumble over edges.
Each space holds its own challenge. The piece I am making for the South Bend Museum of Art will tumble over the edge of a twenty-two foot high wall. Creating a piece that has a substantial visual presence viewed from the sidewalk as well as from the various tall buildings surrounding the Century Center will be a challenge. I am using some wooden structures with arcs and triangles to help establish a strong visual profile and to physically anchor the piece. The Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago has four flagpoles on the edge of its rooftop, and I’ll be draping PEX loops from one to the next like a necklace or adornment for the building and the sky. At the UICA in Grand Rapids, I have a much larger space than I ever have before. Some of my plans for this space are still in the works, as I have a lot of research and testing to do. I can tell you I will be building more structures for the PEX to climb on, and I’ll be making striped walls with red and blue tape. The optical effects of red and blue PEX in front of red and blue stripes will be exhilarating for some, and disorienting for others because of the strong color vibration. The red and blue lines invite associations with arteries and veins, which can lead to contemplations of the visceral experience of artwork. I also embrace associations with toys and hula-hoops. As in much of my other work, I am addressing the fact that apparent opposites often exist together and that ambiguity reigns over clarity.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.