Essay on Heaven, Hell, and Here

Heaven, Hell, and Here (Hell) (Detail) , ink, gouache, acrylic, paper, string, wire, and wood, 8' 5" x 16' x 9", 2013

Heaven, Hell, and Here (Hell) (Detail), ink, gouache, acrylic, paper, string, wire, and wood, 8' 5" x 16' x 9", 2013


Heidi Whitman: Heaven, Hell, and Here

Francine Koslow Miller, Ph.D.

Heidi Whitman's abstract and metaphysical wall map exists in the concrete and tangible acts of drawing, painting, cutting, pasting, and layering hundreds of sheets of paper. Cartographic combinations of flat and 3-dimensional constructions depicting heaven, hell, and here are as rooted in neuroscience, philosophy, religion, and literature as they are in architectural ground planning, topography, and geography. Components painted in acrylic and gouache on rice paper range from matrices of ancient Roman cities to contemporary aerial and stellar maps and microscopic images of the brain. These works on paper are meticulously deconstructed and rearranged in a variety of layers and joined with other painted papers cut into expressive shapes. Convoluted curls and twists cast evocative shadows. The three separate wall pieces, all part of a single installation, were designed with the premise that the imagined (heaven and hell) and the real (here) can combine into a complex, all-encompassing whole.

In Whitman's blue Heaven, cut and folded ultramarine, indigo, and royal blue arrangements of paper, mounted either flat on the wall or built up like high relief, take the form of celestial islands connected by delicately cut and twisted ladders, arcs, and lattices. Rising gracefully from floor to ceiling like the soul's ascent, solid blue abstract forms suggesting flight merge with details of neurons and constellations. The ascending array of curved, grid-like, and triangular paper forms is punctuated with lively arcs, watery drips, and schematic circles painted directly on the wall. Here, Paradise is more a state of mind than a place for eternal salvation.

For Hell, a brilliant array of red and black charred buildings, spider webs, zigzags, and concentric circles suggests a more medieval view of the Underworld as fire and brimstone. The creation of this highly charged apocalyptic image filled with details of maps of ruined Roman cities was inspired by rereading Dante's Inferno with its vivid depictions of the circles of hell populated with dark thorny woods, rivers of boiling blood, and icy fathomless voids. Whitman's Hell is also a creative response to the daily media with its constant bombardment of frightful news of wars, terrorism, and climate change. Jarring vertiginous city grids bereft of human presence call to mind German Expressionism's dystopian visions.

Here refers to the charting of an individual on an actual orientation map (You are 'here') and presents a neutral and black array of modernist architectonic and organic forms as a counterpoint to Heaven and Hell. Separate urban networks are connected by paper, string, and wires, suggesting circuitry and rigging in a lively manner akin to Alexander Calder's early mobiles.

Whitman's willingness to venture beyond the boundaries of geography and convention results in the creation of a fanciful, impassioned work of art. Heaven, Hell, and Here, like the locations described in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, are in essence all parts of one richly imagined place seen from a variety of perspectives.

Francine Koslow Miller, Ph.D., Boston University, was the author of numerous monographs, catalogues, and articles on contemporary art and artists. She was widely published in magazines including Art in AmericaSculpture, and Modern Painters.

Essay © 2013 Francine Koslow Miller. All rights reserved.