Elegant Complexity: Spirituality and Geometry Abstracted in the Work of Charles Heppner
Like many Brooklyn-based artists, Charles Heppner’s art-making practice originated elsewhere. Born and raised in Chicago, Heppner was a mainstay of the Chicago art scene, where he worked for nearly 20 years. His studio on the South Side is part of what’s known as “the greenest house in Chicago.” Designed by his brother, Timothy Heppner of ECOtellignet Design, the house boasts a rooftop garden and even its own wetlands reservoir. These elements are not merely evidence of Heppner’s Green politics: as an artist, he is also deeply invested in the beauty and significance of natural forms, a significance which, for a self-proclaimed “hippie Catholic,” transcends art-making to refigure itself as a quest for spiritual truths.
Majoring in mathematics in college, Heppner’s art training centered around the Hyde Park Art Center, associated since the 1960s with the Chicago Imagists movement, as well as The Drawing Workshop, founded by drawing teacher George Sotos. Early in his career, Heppner focused on illustration and painting – particularly watercolor – but was soon drawn to photography, which has come to serve as something of a baseline in his current practice. Embodied in his work in a variety of forms, Heppner uses photographs to explore the fabric of nature’s geometry, highlighting its subtle contours and endlessly multiplying forms.
Although devoted to film photography (“The craft of creating images in the darkroom is beautiful to me,” he enthuses), Heppner’s recent work also employs digital image-making tools. In his “Sacred Fabric” series, he uses a scanner to map the contours of pieces of cheesecloth, a micro-topographical investigation of the tension between Cartesian and non-Euclidian geometries. The resulting images deconstruct the cloth as an object and bring attention to its formal qualities. Cheesecloth is also used as a support in his “Hortus Noster in Urbe (Our Garden in the City)” series, in which real flowers are photographed against allusive cheesecloth backgrounds. In some, the image recalls a soft womb-like interior, in others free-floating objects in deep space.
Heppner’s “Prayer Rugs” series also relies on digital photography to reduplicate photos of tree branches in kaleidoscopic configurations. London Plane trees are often his subject: “The London Planes are suggestive of dancers to me, the way they move up to the sky.” Heppner presents the winding branches, and occasional deeply hued leaves, against a monochromatic sky.
Last but in some ways most personal for Heppner are his “Sanctum Boxes,” shadow boxes inspired by the Stations of the Cross. The iconography in each box – many of them representing issues of peace and social justice – constitutes a kind of discrete meditation or “prayer.” His spiritual concerns are also reflected on the inscriptions he places on the back of each box, such as “Do Not Be Afraid to Be Compassionate” and “Meditation of What Could Be.” In Heppner’s work, politics and aesthetics have no essential existence outside of the realm of the spiritual. Paraphrasing aesthetic and moral philosopher John Dewey, the artist asserts, “Art is the Spirit itself.”