Heather Morgan interviewed by Nathan Wasserbauer for Issue 8 of Cheap & Plastique.
Heather Morgan, painter and bon vivant, completed her B.F.A. in painting at Boston University, making up the “expressionist wing” of the school for the arts and haunting the underground music scene. She received her M.F.A. in painting/printmaking at Yale University in 1999. Morgan spent five years in East Berlin cultivating fluency in German, exhibiting and publishing work with Karoline Mueller at Ladengalerie, one of Berlin’s oldest galleries and a proponent of representational artists of the former GDR. Morgan was most recently represented by Jack the Pelican Presents in Brooklyn. She currently lives and exhibits in New York.
Nathan: I feel like your subjects are aware that they are being viewed, and that in some of your larger paintings, there is a gathering, not too crowded, that involves some aspect of theater or performance, cabaret, burlesque, and that we are just seeing part of it. Perhaps, a scene from a film? Do the paintings, as a whole or the individual characters depicted therein, have an extended narrative for you in any way (even if you don’t feel obliged to paint the rest of the story)?
Heather: The performance is identity, the act of being someone, a gender, a construct. The images are cinematic and theatrical to illustrate with splendor the idea that living is theater, a kind of madness. There are extended narratives, whole lifetimes of pain and pleasure. Sometimes I have more specific details in mind that fuel what is depicted, but the viewer is free to concoct their own stories.
Nathan: Describe your time in Germany. How does it influence your work? To what extent does German expressionism play a role, if at all? Do you see yourself in a tradition of painting?… or is that not a necessary consideration in order for you to proceed with your intentions?
Heather: I was mining Dix (ha ha) and Beckmann long before I moved to Berlin. The Expressionists fired up my interest in painting in the first place, fraught as that work is with tension, an ecstasy of agonies. Living in Berlin brought something very different to my work. I learned to speak German, I lived in a squat in the former DDR, staying out all night (this was in 1999, before the Euro, before the current tidal wave of Americans). I fully immersed in painting the life of a young Berliner. As hip, sexy and damaged as the city itself. Today I find myself much more interested in beauty than the expressionists were, more in tune with the giddy excess of the Weimar Republic. Beauty being the surest means to strike terror into the heart.
Nathan: “Unflinching yet vulnerable” is how you’ve described the women in your work. Does this speak to fulfillment or longing, some of each?
Heather: Both. There is a complicated situation suggested here in the emotional availability of these figures. Their aggressive stance barely covers their desperate yearnings. You can have them, but you can’t hurt them. Or is it the other way around?
Nathan: Do you see the people in your paintings as part of a smaller community or is this a larger happening? Could this be Berlin, Paris, London?, or is this a New York City exclusive and it could only happen here… only now?
Heather: The subjects of my work are life-at-the-margins characters, people whose failings and eccentricities are most visible. Every city has its own scene, its own special poison in the water. In capturing that I hope my work reflects the here and now, wherever I am.
Nathan: Describe a studio day. Models? Lighting, preferred time of day, depending upon the subject? What are your minimum requirements? Do you make drawings, or do you take your ideas straight to the canvas?
Heather: During the day, awash with sunlight, promise, and the usual existential unease, I like to do small works – figures and objects painted from life. Later in the day, I get ideas for new work, which I might sketch in pen on a scrap of paper or more fully flesh out with a collage. In the evening, I can start to get a bit manic and then I can really start working, no models, not much light. I draw a pretty detailed underpainting to start a painting, often wiping part or the whole thing away several times before it is finished. In that sense, a lot of drawing goes into it. I also do a lot of writing and listening to music, from which I get a lot of ideas.
Nathan: If you could do a big group portrait and could choose whomever you wanted to include, who might be there? People living, dead, famous or not, writers, artists, acrobats, politicians, engineers… They’d all set up in whatever setting you needed to create what you wanted, and say right, go to it! (or you could travel to them if you like).
Heather: I would have loved to have painted David Bowie during his Berlin years or as Ziggy, Jarvis Cocker at the height of Pulp vanity, and a slightly older and jaded Marlene Dietrich in her seamed stockings. But I was not there in that moment with those people. I am here, these kinds of characters are all around and I am painting them.
Nathan: Do the people in your paintings gradually change over time, along with you? Have you made the work partially autobiographical?
Heather: I am curious about that myself, as in some ways I have changed very little. Still the same overgrown lady child, wild leanings and love of messy hair. Of course, we all inch toward decrepitude and I look forward to including that in some of my figures.
Nathan: You do a Heather Morgan Self-Portrait every year. How long has the annual self-portrait tradition existed? Do you think ahead with each year to what kind of self-portrait that will be, or is it less formal than that?
Heather: It is an entrenched classic of two years. I am interested in what pattern may emerge. Over the course of last year, I found myself talking about it quite a bit in advance, but that was probably just a clever ruse to get people to buy me birthday presents.
Nathan: The women in your paintings search for enjoyment despite world strife. Do you see them as grateful to be alive and therefore celebrating?,.. or have they grown indifferent? Are they just telling us to relax a little?…
Heather: These ladies are terribly ungrateful for whatever gifts they may have, life itself can be such a punishment sometimes, and indifference is the worst symptom of that. But they extend a heartfelt and daring “fuck you” to death and really, thereby, embrace the whole thing. Who can relax when there is life to be lived?
Nathan: Talk a bit about what brought you to this body of work, and perhaps give us some hints about what we might see next?
Heather: I have been circling the drain of these themes for my entire life as a painter. I am always looking for new ways to express them, which has led me to some different ways of working, including some very fruitful collaborations with writers, photographers, and other sources of inspiration. I am of an exploratory mind about the present work, and so I have no preconceived idea about where it is going.
Heather will be showing at Fountain Los Angeles this weekend with Cheap & Plastique, she will also be showing work this Sunday in Williamsburg at the Truck Yeah event in front of Crown Victoria Bar, 60 S. 2nd Street, at Wythe, from 12 — 6.
Images from a C & P studio visit with Miss Morgan here.