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Sexual Fury

Although he blew town for Chicago several years back, Robert Heinecken remains a revered figure in the Los Angeles photography scene; he’s a teacher, mentor and nurturing presence to just about anyone over 30 who makes art with a still camera. His 35-year retrospective at LACMA, organized by Chicago‘s Museum of Contemporary Art, thus brings him ”home.“ But Heinecken’s work isn‘t typical of an Angeleno photographer: no urban topographics, no laconic realism, no autobiography, no ironic surrender to mass-mediated consumerism. His sometimes extrav-agant formal boundary stretching is tres L.A., playing with negatives, Polaroids, photolithography and other unorthodox photo material, and pushing into collage, montage, sculpture, book works and other meta-photo media (much of it realized early on, in some cases before anyone else thought to). Also, Heinecken’s preoccupation with the mass media, as image source and as subject, although unironic, is as Hollywood as you can get. But the high moral and political tone of his work, and the ferocity with which he conveys that tone, gives Heinecken‘s oeuvre a close, in-your-face heat infrequently found in this region’s photo work. His Vietnam-era montages bristle with indignation, while in his more recent, sexual imagery he stresses a glossy, exploitative and distancing tinge, fiercely implicating not his own sexist appetite, but that of the mass media.

Such unseemly passion, especially about matters larger than art, disappeared beneath the cool veneer of 1960s-era Finish Fetish minimalism (around the time Heinecken got his start), and postmodern irony has kept it locked away ever since. But certain artists -- Edward Kienholz, for instance -- have been only too happy to take the beast out for a walk whenever they can. Heinecken keeps his on a long leash. In the retrospective we see him struggle during his salad days to express his sensuality with almost-sculptural rhapsodies on the female body; by contrast, his recent huge collaged depictions of Hindu deities, witty and sexy as they are, are tragically enervated by the swirl of media around them.

To the generations of Americans who have grown up awash in television, Heinecken‘s observations about mass-media manipulation may now seem classically quaint or redundant. As snarkily subversive as his standing cutout figures, lifted from real ads, might be, the frisson of their Pop disjuncture has all the subtlety of a political cartoon. 1984: A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate TV Newswoman, for instance, subjects images of CBS News anchors to a collaged photo-grid of broadcast footage. In search of a formula for Nielsen-rating success, the piece mocks both the superficial preoccupations of network news and the ”scientific“ pretensions of those who would measure (or manufacture) their precious demographics. As caustically funny as it comes across, however, Case Study tells us nothing new -- partly because Heinecken has been pointing at it so archly for a third of a century already. But where he has labored to analyze and criticize visual culture, we now deconstruct it automatically as soon as we turn on our TV sets, computers, Palm Pilots, whatever. Heinecken’s skepticism has become our cynicism; his lefty-artsy politics are now as gauche as the overall tenor of his work.

But the most embarrassing thing of all in Heinecken‘s art is, finally, the most powerful, the most affecting, the most disturbing -- not only because it is Heinecken’s true idee fixe, but also because, as he insists, it‘s ours as well: sex. Objects of desire -- bodies, body parts, figures stripped naked or fetishized and positioned for ravishing -- fairly rain from LACMA’s walls. Breasts abound, but no more than do women‘s faces, eroticized through makeup, hairstyling and the more than occasional bangle. A man’s haircut or the set of his mouth can be as much a sexual signal as his erection or his bulging pecs. Sex is everywhere and, Heinecken insists, is refined and idealized in mass-mediated visual culture into sure-fire consumer bait. Sex, he keeps reminding us, sells.

Of course we know that already, too. But this truism we need to be reminded of; otherwise, we‘re sucked right in all over again. Here is where Heinecken’s edge cuts, and has cut continually from the start of his career. His almost mantrically obsessive focus on sexual imagery, most of it appropriated from commercial sources (and, as with his inserts and imprints in periodicals, often returned in subverted form back to those sources), is less a manifestation of Heinecken‘s own jones than a reflection of society’s. The predominance of female subjects (or, if you would, objects) may evince Heinecken‘s own heterosexuality (and keep getting him in trouble with feminists); but it all the more bespeaks advertising’s ritual display of feminine sexual characteristics, a display designed to provoke consumer response from male and female alike.

Heinecken has imbued this imagery with a kind of para-sexual fury, a volcanic anger at the indignity to which both gazer and gazed-at are subject. He clearly resents the constant barrage of stimuli with which the mass-media viewer is converted into consumer. Sometimes Heinecken appropriates those stimuli and transforms them with wild imagination -- the Hindu deities as composites of luscious, salable youth -- or pure artfulness, as in the early-‘70s photogram series, combining headline with tail shot. Other times he transforms them very little, allowing their perversions to appear artful simply in context.

Whatever he does with the images he appropriates -- and most of his imagery is indeed lifted from (or at least based on) mass-media sources -- Heinecken maintains his high tone, emphatic passion and sardonic humor. Occasional excursions into gentler, more personal imagery, especially in his earlier work, don’t neutralize the acid; rather, they remind us that Heinecken hasn‘t abandoned his ideals, only his idealism. If the postmodern, pre-mediated world is too much with him, he has no intention of going gentle into that good night.