Daniel Heidkamp Takes the Kitsch (and the Paint) out of New England Seascape Painting
Daniel Heidkamp has developed something of a reputation for running away with art history in his paintings. Recent years saw him making plein air paintings of cherry blossom trees behind the Met and venturing to the Forest of Fontainebleau, seeking out the spirit that inspired a school of 19th-century French painters. He even uses the same paints that his predecessors, namely the Impressionists, used centuries ago. “I look back a lot. I look at art history because with oil painting, there’s such a dense history,” he tells me weeks before his new show. But he’s quick to add, “I also look forward. I think, ‘What can painting do now?’ It’s always that pull and push of history and where it’s going.” It’s this latter line of thinking that fed his latest series, which also involved an art historical escape, but rather than his usual oils, he’s employed an unlikely medium: paper pulp.
On a warm fall morning in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Heidkamp greets me at the door of Pace Prints’s printmaking studio, Pace Paper, tucked among industrial distribution centers, commercial signmaking storefronts, and other art spaces, where he’s been working over the past few months alongside the studio’s master printers and papermakers, Ruth Lingen and Akemi Martin. Clad in a grey hoodie and a baseball cap (printed with one of his cherry blossom paintings), Heidkamp walks me inside to see his latest endeavors, what have been dubbed by Pace Prints as “paper pulp paintings.” Pinned to the walls are large squares of soft handmade paper, saturated with color, spelling out picturesque scenes that carry an unmistakable New England air. In one, tiny speedboats cut across the ocean; in another, charming houses with pitched roofs peep out of dense forested peaks; in a third, small children lounge in a living room, light streaming through tall windows. Devoid of Heidkamp’s signature smooth brushstrokes and abounding inflections of light, they picture pared-down motifs, a new approach to light, and an embrace of the new medium. They’re not what we’ve come to expect from Heidkamp, but they’re unmistakably his—transfixing, calming, thoughtful reflections on familiar places.
In this case, he’s offering vibrant slices of the serene New England town of Gloucester (pronounced Glaw-ster). “It’s a little seaside city up in Massachusetts, and it has this really dense American painting history,” Heidkamp tells me, listing off American artists who have made camp there, figurative forefathers Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Stuart Davis, and even abstract masters like Mark Rothko, among them. “There’s a reason why all of these people have gone there—because it’s beautiful and it has that art energy,” he explains. “I always like to see if the art energy is real. If you go there and you paint, does something good happen? And it does!” Gloucester also holds personal meaning for Heidkamp; it’s a place he visited as a child, on beach vacations growing up, not far from his native Wakefield, Massachusetts. This past summer, he made two trips to Gloucester, staying for a week at a time, with the purpose of painting.
With his wife and son, and frequent visits from nearby relatives, he stayed in large secluded houses surrounded by private land, close to the the ocean. “My goal was to pick spots and stay there, and just entrench myself in these properties and paint out from there,” he says. And while he’ll be the first to draw a parallel between plein air painting and “Sunday painting,” there are no inklings of the hobbyist tradition in his works. “When I paint from life I’m not interested in the public side of it. I don’t set up an easel on Main Street or anything like that; I try to avoid that.” Painting in private, he captured plots of land and sea that he witnessed alone. “It was basically like having a massive outdoor studio,” he recalls. “I wasn’t really seeking out specific places here; it was more just the energy, and the light, and the color and scenery of the places in general.”
Heidkamp returned to his Sunset Park, Brooklyn, studio with the resulting works—he made from seven to 10 two-by-two-foot paintings per trip. And, as he normally does with his paintings series, he stared at them, taking in the impressions of light and energy that he experienced in person. Then he repainted them. “Whatever happens back in the studio, it’s like trying to get back to the feeling of how I felt when I was painting,” he explains. In late summer, Heidkamp brought some of the new paintings to Pace Paper, and over the two months that followed, he recast his first New England impressions as prints.
The paper pulp paintings, a new medium for Heidkamp, are unprecedented for the artist and Pace Prints alike. Together, they worked to embody Heidkamp’s painterly gesture and vibrant palette in the finicky substance. “With this type of printmaking, you have to practice making the image—it’s almost like learning a song,” Heidkamp explains. “You have to know your part, and what steps you have to take to get it right.” He’s also quick to note that it’s inherently collaborative—Lingen and Martin were a constant presence.
“You have a big bucket of pulp, It is whatever color it is (you can add color or not), and you form a sheet which is just a felted surface of plant fibers that then bond,” Martin explains of the initial stages of the process. “Knowing what we know about how papermaking works, fibers bonding with each other, how things dry, we’re just kind of controlling that, so that Daniel can really basically paint,” she adds. Heidkamp then directly applied various colors of wet pulp, a finer grade than the substrate that Lingen describes as “liquid gold”—it’s made from fine linen that’s been carefully cut up, pulverized, and pigmented. “It’s less about brushwork and more almost dripping these colors onto the paper,” Heidkamp tells me, as he describes this process of painting with pulp. Once he finished, sometimes two days after beginning, the work was pressed flat, inciting hydrogen bonding, which lends the paper its strength.
And it certainly wasn’t easy—our conversation centered largely around the challenges the process presented. One was detail. “Any kind of crisp, small detail is fleeting—it’s almost impossible,” he notes. It’s this desire for crisp detail that led them to employ stencils—of boats, trees, houses, made custom from Heidkamp’s drawings. “The process evolved to where the stencils were pieces that could be moved compositionally. There was sort of a childlike approach of moving the boats around to make a little story, or moving the houses to make a little neighborhood—the idea of ‘play’ was important to this project.”
And perhaps more difficult was rethinking his approach to representing light. “In the studio, I’m focused a lot on creating illusionistic light,” he explains. “A lot of that is just based on getting the right color vibrations, really subtle shifts in color to make it appear like light.” His standby methods were hard to execute with the new materials. “We got it to work sometimes, but I gave up that emphasis a little bit. I love looking at Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter, and those guys who are great at making light. And in here, I shifted more to looking at Gauguin, where you still feel that atmosphere and that energy but it’s less about illusionistic light; it’s more about different bright colors coming up against each other.”
But for Heidkamp, being flung from his comfort zone wasn’t a bad thing—he can’t emphasize enough that the process was fun, pushing his practice into new areas of experimentation. Towards the end of my visit, I can’t help but note that the process seems to be perfectly suited for Heidkamp’s style. “I think it’s a hard technique for a lot of people because there’s a different kind of way it moves, and you have to be able to sort of just go with that,” Lingen explains. “Daniel was really good about just sort of seeing what it would do, and then letting it do its thing,” Martin adds.
The sense of adventure exhibited here is something we can continue to expect from Heidkamp. Before leaving I ask him what lies on the horizon. “I might try something a little different this time,” he says, a note of excitement in his tone. “I’ve been looking at Rubens, and I’m looking at large-scale figurative painting, which I’ve approached over the last year or two,” he says, and adds, “I’m picturing giants.”