Ribbon Mountains

Meredith Reseda Hoffheins visited by Megan Liu Kincheloe

Megan Liu Kincheloe: These paintings all seem focused, whole to one world, like a series of snapshots of the same other place.

Meredith Reseda Hoffheins: It's my other world. I spend a lot of time there. Much of that world comes from where I grew up. A friend from Pennsylvania visited the studio recently and immediately recognized that sense of place in them. That landscape is definitely scrawled onto my brain. I remember as a family driving my sisters to college in Western Pennsylvania when I was around three-years-old. My sisters are twelve and fifteen years older than me and I was a quiet kid always in my own world. And During the drive I would stare out the window, and we’d be driving along the highway in the mountains and through the tunnels into the mountains, and I would look at the forms that the bridges make and the running fences. Those things have definitely seeped into my paintings and me as a person. So that’s the consistent quality I think—that everything relates back to a certain place, even if it’s a different place. 

A different place?

This painting (Secret Obelisk, all works 2015), which obviously is of a cemetery is an example. I live next to Greenwood Cemetery and recently came across a portion we’d never seen before—a huge grassy field set down on a lower level. Part of the cemetery is positioned on the highest point of elevation in Brooklyn. There was a glacier there ten thousand years ago. When you’re walking around, you can feel where the ground levels off and where the land is raised from where the glacier kicked it up. There was a row of gray stones arranged almost in a perfect circle near that ground-shift, with a smattering aof grave stones in the center. It’s those bizarre things that strike me, and make me want to investigate them more in painting. 

The rest of the landscape is radiating from that point.

The landscape is offering up the Obelisk. It’s a feature. Like the bushes are features, where again, it goes back to Pennsylvania. I used to go jogging in a cemetery in my very suburban neighborhood, and these bushes—these very well manicured hedges in the painting are articles of those memories. They’re simple. There’s no wildness to them. They are these concrete things, like a landscaper just decided, “We need a bush right there.” The radiating landscape isolates these features. 

Secret Obelisk, 2015, Acrylic on canvas on board, 24-1/2" X 19"

There’s these artificial shapes sprinkled in many of the environments you paint. There’s something halfway between something imperfect and something made platonically ideal—or blunted and overly symmetrical. The forms in your work are at a point in between that seems to put all these things on an axis. 

That tension is important to me and it helps to build mystery into the work. To me, the places I’m painting feel real, like I could go to them, but they are not real at all. They don’t make any sense, but to me they feel believable. You’re not going to see ribbon mountains, or shadows that turn red when they hit the water, or mountains that look distant appear in the foreground while background mountains appear closer, but for me that’s a language I understand. I notice things and distill it down to the essentials of what makes that place or that thing that I see.

The imagery sounds internal, but they start with an observation first?

It’s coming from the imagination also. That’s something I had to teach myself over the past few years. In graduate school, I was a TA for a Foundation Drawing class. The professor, Doug Wirls, spent about three quarters of the class year teaching drawing techniques that led up to the last assignment which was to depict an invented space. You can learn to draw anything in your head based on some simple rules of perspective and understanding how an object sits on top of another, and being aware of your point of view and that relationship to the picture plane. It was fascinating to see what students can do when they are not necessarily trying to make something look like something else. If you can picture how things work in space, it gives you a lot of artistic freedom. The imagery is completely yours. 

But yes, you see something, and you have a reaction to it, and a reaction to certain forms. I start working based on that one reaction, but then it develops. It’s process-oriented on the surface while I’m painting. I don’t know if the paintings have that feeling like I was searching for something, but when it’s finished I want it to have the sense that it was a concrete vision.

Yeah, they feel psychological, and also solitary.

There are no people. It’s just a vast place. The feeling of emptiness is important in these; taking away as much as I can to still have something there, and keeping these few elements that relate to a specific space, place, or thing— thing being, tree or fountain or cave. 

There are elements that suggest that they were manipulated by people at some point: perfectly round bodies of water, fountains, fences, dwellings, the perfect chasm, ditches, and cement walls. It’s a little mysterious, but even when I draw these little structures I never imagine people in them. They aren’t meant for other people, just the viewer.

Like a sanctuary—a place where people visit, but don’t actually inhabit?

Yeah. They’re something you could stumble across in the middle of some strange place. They just keep expanding. The cave in particular is such a mysterious form. About a year ago, I was painting a lot of these cave dwellings like that one, and looking to cave imagery specifically from Bellini’s The Ecstasy of St. Francis. I went to Sicily after undergrad and visited the Necropolis of Pantalica, a gravesite from a thousand years ago, with tombs built into the cavernous mountains. I wanted the space here to be flat and to have depth at the same time—as if you could physically enter that space, but there would be nothing there to experience if you were to enter—like a two dimensional plane to walk into.

Cave, 2015, acrylic on canvas on board, 23.5" x 20”

It makes your eye weave through the painting in a different way when the space in the painting doesn’t make sense. 

You spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. These layers are almost mirror images of each other. One almost looks like a shadow of another, and shadows are always something I’m fascinated by. This sounds silly, but breaking it down it becomes interesting: the sun controls its light and the object shoots out its shadow that is both completely controlled and determined yet entirely ephemeral. I’m interested in those crosses between what’s a solid thing and what’s a moment: a grassy plane versus a shadow or a light source.

There is that confusion between solidity and flatness.

You start to ask, where is the light source? Is that something I can use to make sense of this? But it usually isn’t. Part of why I love these silly little round fences (Alluvium) is the shadows that are thrown off of them. They’re playful and thrown off in every direction. They still make some sense even though they’re so wrong: some are being cast to the right and others are being cast to the left. It’s like there are a few different moons casting light all at the same time.

You’re highlighting the parts of the observation that are activating to you.

Yes, mountains don’t actually look like ribbons, but if someone asked me what mountains look like, I’d say ribbons.  

That sounds like a Kōan.

It’s not representational, but that basic way of representing a mountain and it’s continual nature—like the white empty frames I was making toward the end of graduate school is a basic way of representing emptiness.  

Is it literal? It almost sounds mundane the way you describe it, but it’s not. 

Yes, because a lot of the time the paintings start off with a lot going on. There’s a history of process and editing down that gets it to that point.

I’ve also been looking at a lot of Early Italian Renaissance paintings and religious paintings—particularly at the weird landscapes that you see in the background. Those landscapes really intrigue me much more than the figures in the foreground. They’re awkward and simplistic, but they speak a language that I understand well. Everything is tipped up in a strange perspective–I don’t think perspective was completely understood.

I’ve been looking at medieval paintings for similar reasons. Those strange compositional issues where everything will be working around a series of embedded circles  for example. The representational forms become awkward adhering to that structure and in trying to work with the math of the whole, they get distorted in satisfying and unpredictable ways. The effect of that lends a weird gravity to the picture. Pedestrian Walkway and Secret Obelisk have that quality where in both several layers of landscape in the background meet, line up, and come together perfectly at these two distinct meeting points.

I have a lot of fun with those intersections. It’s one way to pull together a whole composition. It creates that symmetry and syncs it all together.

There’s a tension in that unreality. I remember in Life Drawing Class, if things happen to work out too perfectly like that, we were taught to move the point over a little because it doesn’t seem real.

But at the same time, I remember learning in Life Study that Michelangelo would draw the body by boiling down the human form to a continual series of convex C-curves. When I’m painting these, it’s finding those relationships that just make everything feel more solid—and solidify an imaginary space. 

I went to a Catholic high school and took an Iconography painting class there. I think a lot about that painting process; those traditional techniques, a slow build up of changing value, surface, and solidity.

The way you are using acrylic looks like egg tempera actually. Do you think of these as icons? 

I definitely think they are. They’re all different, but each represent specific points in a place. You can imagine this landscape moving off into the distance, but I’m pinpointing this one little segment, and making this part significant for some reason.

The paintings do all have a definite center.

Those ribbon mountains emphasize that something out there just keeps going—the landscape, the image could keep going on forever. But then the fountain, or in this one, the big fissure, or the dwelling place, the pear trees—it’s telling you what’s important at this specific location.

These fountains feel ecclesiastic, ecstatic. 

I sometimes think of the icon paintings of the Virgin Mary’s Annunciation—a big sword of light coming in and hitting her, and those light and water marks blasted into the air in a really controlled specific fashion. And for this one, I was playing around with those ideas. Driving through the countryside, you see ponds with fountains built in the middle. There’s something in the effort of trying to build something natural, and obliterating that natural thing with some tacky water feature that’s funny. It’s kind of like those early paintings. There’s the strange ray of light that’s so controlled in those landscapes, and it’s like things haven’t changed in a way.

What hasn’t changed?

In those Early Renaissance paintings there are elements that are strange and out of place, but those parts held a kind of symbolism to the Early Renaissance viewer. It's a lot like landscaping, which is also artificial and kind of bizarre if you think about it—imposing abstract order onto landscape. There’s a little bit happening in both that I like to work with—that overlap of intentions. There’s something absurd. Although the people who spend so much time of their landscaping are probably really proud, or excited about their new water features—as symbols of something meditative or beautiful, the sound of water rippling in their backyard. 

Fountain, 2015, acrylic on canvas on board, 24 1/2" x 19 1/2”

They’re aspirational, representing ideals—tranquility, wealth.

Or even trying to be something heroic. I was just looking at a picture of the Bellagio fountains. They manipulate them to make these amazing patterns. The fountains in my paintings are not so grand, they are just dinky, little trickles, but it’s the patterns— there’s something greater happening in the linear effects. 

They’re the humble versions.

That wanting to have your own idyllic taste of nature in your backyard—looking for a watered down version of the sublime. I’m placing these things into vast landscapes that aren’t real, and could go on forever. The fountains anchor the landscapes somewhat to reality—they’re something relatable, a symbol you can easily understand. It’s mitigating that sublime notion with a Home Depot gardening kit.

That makes them more like icons, and you’re pitting the awkward symbol against the real thing. Like this little orchard?

I started this painting when we were staying at my brother-in-law’s house in Birmingham, Alabama. He lives on a tall hill, and across the street looking down there’s a little house with a yard with these tiny pear trees just like these. There were those almost perfectly round shadows cast at the base of each tree. 

The painting started there—from these trees that you see everywhere, in any suburb, and even on the streets here. The tree brigade will come and plant these trees to try and green up the neighborhood with the same trees over and over again. 

Birmingham, 2015, acrylic on canvas on board, 18" x 18"

The concerted effort, the neighborhood initiative, the street tree tree…

Yes, the quintessential street tree. That one was definitely based on my suburban Birminghamian experiences. The city of Birmingham sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains all around. That visual experience found its way in as well—this enclosure of mountains holding in this space.

Like a snow globe.

As a self contained, artificial community—Birmingham is a nice city, but it relies so much on this suburban sprawl that it has this strange feel. The ideal is to live in the hillsides above; to look down into that city in the middle.  

If the real estate value is tiered that way, the class structure is sort of physicalized into the landscape itself.

Historically with White Flight, the further away from the city you were the higher the status, but that structure is being reversed a lot for different reasons.

Class ambitions and ideals are very embedded in the subjects you depict—water features, white picket fences, and pear trees. Somehow the manmade things are rendered the least real.

This one is titled Pedestrian Walkway. The walkway is something that you could use to navigate the space but it’s also impossible. You could more easily skip across the rocks depicted than traverse the walkway. 

Pedestrian Walkway, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 23.5" x 20”

Other features are out of place: these half-finished fences to fence off nothing, or this fence that almost makes it the corner of this lot but doesn’t or depicting this kind decorative edging for a garden, the kind which are so flimsy you can just stick them into the ground by hand and move them around.

Yeah, like croquet wickets.

They just cave in and fall over—a frustratingly terrible quality. I picture taking the dog out and hooking its leash so it doesn’t run away, and the pressure of the dog’s leash is enough to ruin the fencing around your garden plot.

The decorative edging of the garden plot…These are words are from my upbringing too. They remind me of my grandmother at least—her yard was so much of her identity, her public presentation. She worried over the state of her lawn to such a degree she had trouble leaving town for even a weekend. It’s definitely a kind of Americana.

Trying to maintain this perfection in this plot or property, trying to maintain ownership or declare ownership over a certain area—it’s something you can’t do in New York City at all. Nothing is yours.

My parents’ friends have children in their 40’s who own this house in my hometown where they let everything become overgrown into this jungle. They have duck ponds and ducks walking around the yard with huge trees and bushes growing wild. It definitely doesn’t feel how it’s supposed to feel in that neighborhood, but that’s their identity—going against everything else in the town. I loved that, but their parents were so embarrassed that the kid they raised grew up to take care (or not take care of) their yard this way. 

This one gets so representational. It’s such a departure from your work I knew at Pratt, which was equally great, but reductive, minimal, and without imagery.

Graduate school was so much about removing imagery for me. I was making this non-pictorial work in paper, trying to pair it down as much as possible and the paper frames were just the ultimate removal of the image. And we would look at the piece in the studio, and it was all about why it’s still an artwork. Even though it’s this really simple thing, it has the right amount of off-ness and intentionality that if you saw it in a vacant lot laying on the ground, you would still be sure that it was an artwork. There’s something about that—those few simple moves—competing with yourself in figuring out this problem of art: How can I make art without it looking like art? 

Getting back into imagery was a slow crawl, but I started looking at color again, looking at shadows, looking at landscape while I was the Vermont Studio Center, and finally finding forms again that actually meant something—there was a story there, and it was about me, and this place, and it was about something mysterious that everyone can access or everyone can consider. There’s still a huge editing process even when there’s a lot of imagery, and what I learned about editing with the reductive works that carries through to now. It really feels good to have something to keep me going that might never end and liberating to be making work more involved in the world.

For additional information about Meredith please check out her website: meredithhoffheins.com

Additional Images: