Lee Heinen: Interior Worlds

Lee Heinen, Persephone, 2020, Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches

In this time of social distance, the space inside our heads has become paramount, and often far more real than the remote, bewildering world that lies beyond our doors.

While known for her innovative portraiture, Lee Heinen’s current body of work explores our interior realities during a moment of unprecedented isolation. Started in March 2020, the series began as a fortunate accident. As Heinen describes, “Working in my studio one day, I tossed aside the background of a figure I had just cut out, and it dropped to the floor of my studio. The negative space of the cutout was filled by the highly patterned Kilim rug… Instantly it struck me that interior head space was more relevant now than the exterior body language I had been pursuing for years.”

These intimate canvases feature cropped, shoulder-up silhouettes isolated on fields of color. Inside, the subjects’ interiors explode. Some burst into Abstract Expressionist chaos, while others into the weave of textiles, Cubism, or the rich tones and swirling patterns of Art Nouveau. By comparison, the sparse backgrounds feel impenetrable and expansive, much like the seemingly endless days we spend in solitude.

As Heinen explains, “For me this work represents a whole new direction, from suggesting a story through external body language to an exploration of what is going on in people’s minds as they cope with isolation, fear, economic stress and violence in the streets. The paintings invite the viewer to complete the picture, to bring their experience to the work, to make it about themselves. Even the titles are open to interpretation.”

In each figure, painterly brush strokes connect the hand of the artist to the very human emotions portrayed. They also lift the clean compositions out of the world of graphic design, and the digital quagmire which surrounds us.

“The series addresses the variety of ways people are reacting to our collective dilemma. There are those that engage in destructive behavior to themselves and/or others, those that discover a new appreciation of nature, many that retreat into their devices, and others who retreat into themselves. The pandemic presents a daunting challenge…. What story will our interior worlds collectively tell when it ends?”

Heinen’s new work is currently on display in Navigating the Pandemic: An Artist’s Perspective, a small group show at Summa Health Center which explores “the impact of COVID-19 on an artist’s practice and the influence of the pandemic on the human psyche.” The exhibition, on view until January 1, is only accessible by patients, their families, and hospital employees—an uncanny reminder of the very separation the work reflects. Heinen’s work is also available to view on her website: leeheinen.com.