Erik Madigan Heck @Staley-Wise

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the three connected spaces of the gallery and the office area. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2007 and 2018. Physical sizes range from roughly 30×40 to 40×60 inches (or reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 9+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of Heck’s work, entitled Old Future, was published in 2017 by Abrams.

Comments/Context: Developing a recognizable artistic voice in a crowded commercial field like fashion photography isn’t easy, particularly because of the genre’s inherent structural constraints. In nearly every assignment, the subject is, by definition, a model wearing (or at least showing off) the featured clothing. In the early days of the genre, up close simplicity and refined elegance were the most common motifs applied to this artistic challenge; of late, increasingly elaborate, exotic, and in some cases, exaggerated narratives, storylines, and settings have surrounded the looks, expanding the range of visual possibilities. But while fashion photographers (and stylists) continue to use their aesthetic ingenuity to expand the field in surprisingly bold directions, very few seem to successfully draw the attention of the fine art side of the photographic house.

This tightly edited selection of recent work by Erik Madigan Heck provides ample explanation for why he has been able to cross over. In a certain way, Heck is a purist, in that his images resolutely put the clothes at the center of the artistic expression – they are the stars of his pictures and everything in his compositions revolves around or is inspired by the fashions. Using the colors, designs, patterns, and formal qualities of the clothes as his primary guide, he constructs setups (both in the studio and outdoors) that isolate and feature those details, both forcing us to pay attention to the specifics and using them as an aesthetic jumping off point for his own innovations.

One important way Heck aims our focus at the clothes is by minimizing our natural interest in the model’s face. In most of the images in this show, the model is deliberately turned away (the series is called Without a Face), effectively making her anonymous and preventing us from looking to her facial expression for clues to a narrative. In the few pictures where we do see a face, it is always in profile, in the process of rotating away, or obscured by hair, an elaborate hat, the edge of a coat, or the blur of movement. This choice rebalances the forces that control how we react to a fashion photograph, pushing us away from centering on stories, situations, people, and emotions and pulling us toward lively visual play with color, pattern, and formal abstraction. These pictures pare away potential distractions and deliver their punch with exacting precision.

When the clothes have elaborate patterns (like showy flowers, hand painted scenes, or butterflies, for example), Heck lets them deliver the interest, with matching flat colored backdrops and smartly chosen hats or hairpieces selected to complement the fabrics. In a few images, he adds a bit of whimsy with actual (not digital) butterflies floating through the air, creating a back and forth dialogue between pattern and insect. In others, he pairs polka dots of different sizes to create visual contrast in an otherwise Renaissance-style side view, turns the red flowers on a dress into paper cutouts that dapple the floor like fallen leaves, and extends the mod swoops of red and black on a dress out like gestural drips of paint that echo the colors of playing cards.

When the fabrics and silhouettes are simpler, his compositions become more formal and architectural, often jolted by a pop of color or an imbalance of proportion. A bold twist of black and white striping is surrounded by enveloping red, a white ensemble is set off by red socks, and a sculptural dress of white spots on black is matched with a bulbous doubled hat. Heck continues the hat theme with a pair of oversized blue hats that alternately complement soft drapery and shimmery pink silk, the bold forms encouraging an inspection of textures. All of these works would do particularly well printed extra large like monumental paintings, assuming they could handle the enlargement without becoming grainy, as Heck’s painterly compositions have a robust, almost graphic presence that amply fills the frame.

A few works find Heck venturing outside, where he exchanges the minimalism of the studio for the expressiveness of the outdoors. The dresses still dictate the color palettes and the thematic approaches, but the views are much more expansive and ethereal, with small figures twirling in the heath or wandering through wildflowers. While we might try for a moment to reach for a fairy-tale style narrative thread in these pictures, mostly what we see are broader impressions, with dots of red flowers reflected in a nearby pond and matched by a dress or windswept layers of fabric in orange and yellow (and a dash of auburn hair) repeated by the soft colors of scrubby hills in the warm light of the afternoon.

In a genre where surface glamour is a given, Heck finds a way to put his own distinctly vivid spin on romance. His compositions loosely allude to the history of art, but still feel remarkably fresh and current. Letting the inherent moods of the gowns inhabit the setups, he’s able to handle both soft and hard, sleek and lush, with seemingly equal success. This leads to a show with remarkable image to image consistency, a signal that he’s found an artistic groove that is both authentically personal and powerfully flexible.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $11000 to $16000. Heck’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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