Steven Heinemann: Culture and Nature

During the curator/artist walk-through of his recent major retrospective at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, Culture and Nature, curator Rachel Gotlieb asked Steven Heinemann about the exhibition’s title: “Do you find culture and nature to be binaries, polarities, or is there something of a tension between the two?” he responded by stating the obvious (that nonetheless often goes unnoticed), that “there’s a unity that is organic with clay and ceramics; the materials automatically drive the process.”

In my recent interview with Heinemann, he expanded on the logic of clay as the basis for his process and how, as a medium, it captures and refers to both the worlds of nature and of culture: “Clay does things constantly that reflect its organic nature, and it behaves in ways that we don’t necessarily determine or control. To me that’s just like a microcosm of nature operating in your hands or your studio.” He went on to further explain his views on the dynamics of culture and nature:
All the things that you bring [the medium of clay] as a human being —your interest in order and ways of organizing things; the workings of your brain and of the human mind brought to bear on this practice — in the ways that I’m drawn to using clay, it allows for that kind of exchange between those two dynamics.1

Culture & Nature was organized chronologically in groupings of three to six years, which is more-or-less the rhythm of Heinemann’s process of investigation. The sections begin with early works, end in recent works, and cover a progression through negatives and pods, constructed forms and discs, bowls, closed forms, and altered and extended forms. Also included is Heinemann’s interdisciplinary foray into photography and moving image installation work. The exhibition was comprehensive insofar as it show-cased over eighty ‘trigger’ pieces, as well as an entire wall of Heinemann’s meticulously executed large-format mounted test tiles. In this article, I want to not only walk you through this extraordinary artist’s three-and-a-half-decade contribution to the field to date, but to offer insight into the thoughts and ideas that drive his particular methodology.

Heinemann grew up in small-town Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s and many of his early aesthetic influences came from his voracious appetite for books that dealt with line, design, form and creative output. It was in the library that Heinemann found the work of post-war modernist Hans Coper. Coper’s influence is particularly evident in the groupings that reference negatives, pods and constructed forms. I would argue that Heinemann’s work evokes something of what his British contemporary, Edmund de Waal coined as “the new austerity” – a quality of form that functions as a counterpart to contemporary minimalist sculpture. 2

As noted above, Heinemann’s process of inquiry around a kernel of an idea takes years to unfold. Moving meticulously is part of his methodology that took root in his early training. The first display area of Culture and Nature confronts viewers with works that are not typically associated with this artist, for example thrown vessels, more specifically, bowls. (Heinemann is largely associated with his expert and large-scale slip cast forms).

Unsurprisingly, one of the themes of inquiry that Heinemann’s retrospective exhibition circles around is the tension between utilitarian and sculptural form: when does a bowl become not a bowl?