There’s a collision in Rachel Hecker’s paintings of two great, and usually segregated, modes of art-making. One of them is the ultra-precise hard-edge painting tradition that leads from Mondrian through Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Peter Halley. The other is the practice of salvaging scraps of everyday ephemera and recategorizing them (with lesser or greater degrees of alteration) as art: Kurt Schwitters, On Kawara, Joseph Grigely, Danicia Phelps. Hecker’s canvases are exquisitely finished, with barely a trace of the immense craft that goes into them, while the subject of her paintings are mostly scaled-up pieces of throwaway printed and written matter: shopping lists, to-do memos, store receipts, ticket stubs—items that seem the ontological opposite of a slowly built-up abstract painting. What happens in these collisions is not what one would expect: there’s no attack on painting’s elevated status and no pop-inspired celebration of quotidian artifacts. Instead, Hecker steers her work toward the dynamics of social transactions, toward autobiography and toward philosophical meditations about art and life.
Walking into her 2009 show at Texas Gallery in Houston (Hecker has been living in Houston since the early 1980s, after getting an MFA at RISDI, but her work has consistently rejected the weathered surface and expressionistic touch that marks so much Texas art), it was easy to think that you’d come on the wrong day: dozens of canvases were leaning against the long walls of the gallery’s large space, sometimes stacked two or three thick. It looked as if the show was either not yet installed or already concluded. In fact, the show was neither over nor not yet begun but fully up and running, exactly as the artist intended. Hecker’s decision to emphasize the objecthood of the paintings was meant to push them toward another medium. As she says, “I refer to this work as painting for convenience, but I approach and think of it as sculpture.” (Hecker also makes things that are emphatically sculptures, including supersized charcoal briquettes and burnt matches.)
One painting in the Texas Gallery show depicts a sheet of pale-blue notepaper adorned with a cute Sanrio-style monkey and two hastily written columns of numbers, one noting times of day, the other quantities of ounces. Numbers appear in many of the works: a hardware store receipt with the product number of a purchased item and a dimension (36 x 51) someone has scribbled onto the receipt and Hecker has faithfully reproduced; one of Hecker’s business cards with additional phone numbers written onto it, alongside notations in Spanish and misspelled English. The Sanrio stationery has to do with the care of the artist’s aging mother (a frequent topic of her paintings); the business card records an exchange between Hecker and a couple looking for house-cleaning work; in a neat bit of conceptualist tautology, the dimensions on the hardware store receipt refer to the very painting they appear on.
As resourceful as she is patient, Hecker seems to relish the challenge of fashioning convincing simulacra of everyday items. Not strictly engaged in trompe l’oeil, Hecker doesn’t try to fool us into thinking we are looking at the real thing: she always scales up her subjects to 10 or 12 times actual size. Through trial and error, she has figured out how to make paint look like pencil or felt-tip pen marks, like the printed text on a fortune cookie message, like a sheet of stickers. She has a love of difficult making and a passion for making her labor invisible that reminds me of Vija Celmins.
What first drew Hecker to this kind of material was her desire to escape self-consciousness in her choice of subject matter. For many years, she made large-scale photorealist paintings that combined cartoon and film-still imagery. Executed with an airbrush, these paintings offered a sly, feminist-influenced commentary on the society of spectacle. By contrast, her ephemera paintings leave intended meaning open. They also engage abstraction: her scaled-up notes on hotel stationery exist as gestural marks on monochrome grounds (most obviously with her paintings of color sample cards), often of a startling beauty made all the more affecting by its humble origins.
On one level, the work is a record of the artist’s life, but you don’t have to know the backstory to Hecker’s paintings in order to respond to their chronicling of the daily grind we all face. A fancily printed card from a gala dinner informs its holder that he or she is seated at “Table 17” (I’m reminded of the “prize” paintings of Martin Kippenberger, with whom Hecker shares a love of hotel stationery); a shopping list that runs from pizza to soymilk shares the page with handwritten words of wisdom from Rumi and the Ashtavakra Gita.
Hecker’s work is not entirely without precedent. In the 1960s, Alex Hay began crafting meticulous enlargements of items such as a sheet of legal-pad paper or a cash register receipt. More recently, Jonathan Seliger has been showing scaled-up sculptures of brand-new shopping bags, take-out food containers and pizza boxes; and Austrian artist Stefan Sandner has been making large-scale paintings of handwritten notes. In contrast to these other artists, Hecker emphasizes the transactional nature of her source material. Much of her work also charts (sometimes literally) the relationship of our bodies to the regimented systems they exist within, whether it’s a medication schedule, seating at a gala dinner or the colors of paint available at a hardware store. Her work can also laugh at its own place within the art system.
Hecker’s loving re-creations of the scraps we thoughtlessly acquire, and just as thoughtlessly discard a dozen times in the course of any given day, can be understood as contemporary vanitas paintings, reminding us of the brevity and fragility of human life. In one painting of a page torn out of a spiral notebook, notes for a weekly schedule happen to share space with the penciled-in observation that “everything in my house will eventually be garbage and I will eventually be food.” A grim truth, but by presenting it as a ripped out page (the torn holes of spiral bound notepaper are to this artist what lace was to 17th century European painters), Hecker quietly suggests that art, even when depicting the most quotidian subjects, can still be a vehicle of transcendence.