Vulnerable Avatars: Heidi Hahn and Shana Moulton in Conversation

On storytelling, seriality, and a shared love of clichés.

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The Feeling Good Handbook. Installation view. Courtesy the artist and Upfor Gallery. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

The Feeling Good Handbook came from an interest in a rarely-pictured private vulnerability, a kind of contemplative doubt or ambiguity, that, in spite of the endless feed of images that offer “access” to the lives of others (trips taken, meals eaten, fun had), feels under-represented—so much so that its absence risks tricking us into wondering if only we feel uncertain, awkward, or lonely.

What drew me to showing Heidi Hahn and Shana Moulton together is the interplay of their shared willingness to go toward this vulnerable place when many of us are running the other way: their openness to putting their own neurosis, searching, and even just plain “blah-ness” on full display. For Heidi, the unflinching ordinariness of her female figures makes them more worthy of painting, not less. And Shana treats her alter-ego’s hapless quest for spiritual fulfillment at Color-Me-Mine with affection rather than judgement.

Human experience remains messy and ambivalent; I feel a kind of reassuring generosity in their exploration of those more difficult aspects, as if through their work they’re saying to all of us: “You’re not alone!”
—Jordana Zeldin, curator

 

Heidi HahnWalking into the gallery space for the first time, I was struck with the contemplative nature of the show. A meditative sort of experience between two very different mediums. We’ve talked about the use of the avatar in our works. It’s interesting that my paintings hold a certain headspace and the character in your videos also functions in a certain world or headspace. Do these characters speak to each other? Does the viewer get to participate?

Shana Moulton I personally relate so much to the characters in your paintings. I make a lot of the same facial expressions when I perform as Cynthia. I attempt to convey her inner life through her surroundings, which happens in a lot of your paintings. They are definitely speaking to each other, but it’s hard for me to see it outside of myself/Cynthia. I don’t know if you also feel this way, but for me exposing personal neurosis, hypochondria, anxieties through Cynthia is an attempt to connect to some viewers.

HH I think the characters in my paintings try to convey an atmospheric feeling rather than telling a story. They want to be felt rather then just seen. It’s like we use our avatars to funnel those emotions and make them presentable to the viewer. They are almost safety guards in that sense. The viewer also connects (hopefully) in a more personal way because we are allowing vulnerability to be seen.

I like that Cynthia seems to imagine her surroundings based on her mood or other psychic leanings. It’s almost as if we get to see through her neurosis and those emotions skew the landscape. Especially because you have these material extensions coming out of the video. These objects in the installation almost act as a gateway from the physical world into this immaterial place. It’s like a hand reaching out to physically pull a person into the work, which to me is exciting and generous. It’s as if the objects justify her world to be a true one, and you show the evidence as if to say, “Cynthia does exist!”

SM After our work was installed in the gallery, I found myself getting very close to each work and then stepping back to take in the connections. The characters in your paintings really started to dissolve and then cohere again, almost like they were animated. They feel unstable or slippery—is animation something that informs your paintings?

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Heidi Hahn, Nights Like Days Don’t Exist IV, 2016. Oil on panel, 26 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and UPFOR Gallery.

HH
I love the idea that my paintings can be this one continuous moment. The viewer gets to meet up with this woman, or women, going about their day, and we just get little glimpses. I find the seriality in that comforting.

The other day you mentioned that sometimes you feel done with Cynthia, but then an idea comes that might only work through the use of her persona. That is very similar to how I work. I can tell this story and it always seems to be more important or personal if it’s through this banal woman, a generic kind of woman that is interchangeable. The worlds or content we create can be unstable; it’s only interesting to me if things seem they might fall apart. I like that term you use: “slippery.” That seems dangerous and enticing. I think when I watch your videos I feel scared because they twist into concrete understandings about life, space, personality, and then dissolve into something that seems violently surreal and uncanny. How do you do that!!???

SM
Hah! It’s funny because I see your paintings in motion. Maybe it’s just a flickering candle or drip, but they feel animated, and they have a soundtrack that keeps going even after I turn away. Once I get closer, that falls apart and I get lost in the textures.

When you described your figures as being embedded in the landscape or the paint I could really feel that in my skin. I wonder if the characters desire that melding or are trapped by it? I think Cynthia is sometimes trying to merge with her surroundings too, either by becoming another object or through dance. She is always looking for ways to merge with nature. Other times it’s entrapment.

HH I think that’s a great way to put it. I think of the characters in my paintings as being trapped. Painting for me is capturing time, and when that moment has been captured it’s just fixed, it’s a fact. I think that is what’s heartbreaking about painting. It’s this moment in time and it will never move forward. It has a history but no future. The character in the painting sitting on the bed will never get up and move to the other room. Video for me seems more optimistic, it utilizes real space and has movement. I imagine the character going to lunch after a segment or rearranging her hair when the camera pans away to an object.

Your work seems to have all these layers, all these different planes to evoke numerous experiences and metaphors. Even the objects in your installations themselves have this ability to transcend their commercial lives. We’ve discussed how your objects denounce their cheap readymade origins and become imbued with personality and spirituality. It’s like you have compressed all these ideas to exist outside of the traditions of actual time. Does video function that way for you?

SM There is a narrative that happens over time, but it starts over in almost every video. Cynthia is sort of trapped in a loop, a different version of the same scenario happens over and over. Maybe it is because the objects that she interacts with play the same role each time.

I usually don’t have much of a plan when I set out to make a video or performance, just some fragments in mind—how much planning goes into a new painting or series for you? Is there an image in your mind already, a concept? Or does the material quality of the paint guide the formation of images? Do you feel like your characters experience any development over the course of a series?

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The Feeling Good Handbook. Installation view. Courtesy the artist and Upfor Gallery. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

HH
I do start with an image. I always work in a series, so that one image is replicated numerous times. The image can be of a woman reading on the bed and the paintings all start out with that. They start to grow apart through formal decisions, like in one painting the time of day is high noon and the other can be late at night. Then the expressions shift. So the woman might have the same pose throughout, but all the other factors are up in the air. I don’t really draw beforehand, all the work happens as the paintings unfold. I guess that’s the exciting part of painting, it can be so malleable until it’s done. I like the possibilities of multiple endings or conclusions. I’m always trying to figure how to tell the same stories in different ways.

I also think: what does it mean to finish an idea? Do you think the use of seriality in your work makes it this ongoing project? Or does the work have a conclusion in each video, like it’s a novel and all the videos make up different chapters? For me, I have to exhaust an idea before I can move onto the next, that’s why working in a series is an effective way to explore all aspects of an idea.SM Yes, I see it as an ongoing project and almost my only project, besides a few collaborations. Even the videos with different titles are all part of the Whispering Pines series, and the collages and sculptures I sometimes make are things that Cynthia might make or buy so it’s all definitely part of the same body of work. Having a conclusion to the more narrative video and performances is really important, but only in the way a song has a conclusion, mainly emotional.

I love thinking of the paintings as having multiple endings. Even though your characters are in a fixed moment they feel so fluid to me. Even if they are in the same situation or pose, things like light and texture can totally change the reading. How do you finish an idea, or complete a moment while keeping that feeling of instability?

HH I always think the idea is done when I’ve been able to edit out useless information. When the painting stops asking questions. The work changes so much as it develops and I think that way of working gives it its instability. The history is inherent throughout, the viewer is able to see the layers and feel the indecision. It goes back to this idea of vulnerability. I wonder if you feel that way about using yourself as this vehicle for Cynthia. Did you ever think about using an actor to portray this character? I feel like all the women in my paintings are stand-ins for every woman I know. Somehow I feel like Cynthia is more specific.

SM I love how you put that, “The viewer is able to see the layers and feel the indecision.” I hope my work comes across in a similar way, that the struggle is evident! Friends have suggested that I should try hiring an actor to play Cynthia but the idea defeats the whole project. I guess the most important part of the process for me is having to think both in front of and behind the camera, and besides the occasional collaboration, I like working alone. I want to think of your characters as Cynthia because I identify so heavily with their essence! But I imagine a lot of viewers have that reaction. I’m not sure if I’m making work about loneliness and alienation or just private moments, do you feel like your paintings are more one or the other?

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The Feeling Good Handbook. Installation view. Courtesy the artist and Upfor Gallery. Photo: Mario Gallucci.

HH
I personally can’t imagine Cynthia without you! I think it is so important for the artist to participate in every aspect of the work. I personally need a lot of alone time with the work. I need to be one with it, as new age as that sounds. No one else is allowed to participate in it. In a way even the viewer is not allowed to come too close to the real content, they only get the surface. It’s like what I was saying before, you sense the struggle and you know it’s in the work, but you only get the residue.

I wonder about the performative aspect in art. What makes the viewer want to participate? Is it just being confronted with the object like nature? Also can you talk about performance in your work? How does it start and what is it like for you to be present?SM One of my favorite observations in grad school was from a professor that said I was making the work for myself. I really hit my stride when I realized it was fine to entertain myself. When I film something knowing that I’ll apply a certain special effect to the footage, I usually cannot wait to get the video files onto the computer to try out the effect. So much so that I get impatient with the filming process. And the idea-generation part of studio-time for me is 90% self-doubt and self-loathing, 10% lightbulb-nirvana. But when making a piece for a specific context I do think a lot about the viewer’s experience. I fear performing live but the immediate feedback I get from it has been the most rewarding part of showing any work. It heightens the experience of my work for many viewers in ways that I don’t really understand. I probably enjoy the feeling of it being over with—when the performance goes off without any technical difficulties, it is a real high.

But being you in your studio sounds totally sublime! And you describing the experience of being one with your work makes me wonder if that is what your characters are experiencing in their landscapes and settings.

HH I recently had the painter Jennifer Packer give an artist talk up where I teach at Alfred University, and she says something really amazing and simple: make a painting like nobody’s watching. Make a painting just for you and maybe you show it or maybe you keep it in a room and it’s always there for you. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I think as makers who show and have deadlines and are privileged enough to have the work seen, it’s so important to make it in the most authentic way possible. Leave everybody behind. I don’t know if that attitude is solipsistic or selfish, but I agree. Philip Guston also says when he goes into the studio he leaves everybody out so it’s just him and the work. I think it is in this way that we can go to a unique place, at least a place unique to us. I deal with this all the time, how do I make something totally new and like nothing I have ever seen yet familiar and connected to the world I live in? Do you think about this? Because the thing is, I love clichés, I live for them, and I use them in my work as well, at least as a starting off point.

SM I also love clichés! Making clichés feel unfamiliar or relevant is one of the reasons I became an artist. I want my work to feel innovative and to be in dialogue with other current artists, but when making new work I try to imagine it might be the last piece I make before I die. I have to make sure I get this particular idea or vision into the world before it’s too late.


The Feeling Good Handbook is on view at Upfor Gallery until June 2.

Heidi Hahn earned her Bachelors degree in Fine Art from Cooper Union and her MFA from Yale School of Art. She has been awarded residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Headlands Center for the Arts, among others. Solo exhibitions of her work have been held at Jack Hanley Gallery in New York and Premier Regard in Paris and she has been included in group exhibitions at Anton Kern, New York, Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles, H I L D E, Los Angeles and John Wolf, Los Angeles, among others. Hahn’s work shown courtesy Jack Hanley Gallery, New York.

Shana Moulton earned her BA from University of California, Berkeley, in art and anthropology and her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University. She has been an artist-in-residence at the LMCC Workspace Program and Smack Mellon in New York; Skowhegan School in Maine and The Sommerakademie in Berne, Switzerland. Moulton has exhibited or performed at many notable institutions, including The New Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Wiels Center for Contemporary Art, Brussels; Migros Museum, Zurich; and and De Appel, Amsterdam. Her work was featured on Arte TV and Art21’s New York Close Up. Moulton’s work shown courtesy Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich.

Shana Moulton by Bean Gilsdorf
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