Elizabeth Huey’s “Polychromatic Projection,” at the newly opened Heiner Contemporary gallery, is aptly titled. The New York artist’s paintings are brilliantly colored, frighteningly so—-as if a semi-trailer truck carrying Crayolas collided with a semi-trailer truck carrying Cray-Pas—-and their color nearly belies the darkness of the artist’s “projections,” which touch on rudimentary technology, bizarre medicine, psychology, and magic.
In her depictions of old moving-picture technology—-a magic lantern, a television studio taping—-Huey represents not only the physical projection of light, but also the subjective projection of reality, which is sort-of theme in the exhibition. In another work, she portrays globe-making, also a form of reality projection. Most often the works in “Polychromatic Projection” address the psychological, phenomenological, and even the paranormal, all of which she approaches brightly with the kid gloves of a friendly doctor.
A blown-up vintage illustration of a séance hangs in the gallery’s entrance hallway; a video near the back of the gallery shows edited archival footage of magicians performing sleight-of-hand acts with cards and doves. Their black and white palate contrasts startlingly with the polychrome paintings, their content lending a cue of people under hypnosis, taking oxygen, attended to by nurses and physicians while in the throes of psycho-spiritual rapture. The exhibit’s abundant psychological thread makes a painting of two guys in a billiards hall seem out of place, until you learn it is Sigmund Freud playing pool with Carl Jung. All of this makes sense: Huey has a degree in psychology from George Washington University.
Though modern psychology is usually associated with session-based couch therapy and analysis, some of the paintings remind us that psychology from the later 19th century onward dealt with the biological—-such as in
“Shock Therapy”“Mary Todd (Electric Shock)”—-as well as the psycho-spiritual. Astrological readings, hypnosis, and séances—-put together, the body of work sums up a collective consciousness of strange past medical practices. After looking at the variety of bizarre narratives on the wall, you nearly expect to see a patient undergoing bloodletting to balance his humors.
Many of the images in Huey’s paintings feel familiar, as if pulled from a dusty Funk & Wagnalls or World Book encyclopedia. She recently completed an Artist Research Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where she examined imagery from old advertisements, medical supply catalogs, postcards, and photographs. Some of the paintings are direct transcriptions of the photographs (Freud playing pool with Jung), and other compositions are pieced together like analog Photoshopping in paint rather than pixels.
The charged and varied projection narratives are aided by Huey’s charged and varied painting techniques. Her works are representational, yet constructed via abstract and expressive mark-making. Though those battles are long over, the war of pictorial space between the Renaissance window and Clement Greenberg-ian flatness seems alive and well within the surfaces of Huey’s paintings. Their backgrounds appear affected by Gerhard Richter’s squeegee, while their foregrounds bear the occasional cartoonish touch of Honoré Daumier’s brush. Background sometimes bleeds into foreground, and the image’s clarity becomes muddied in the muck of color. Huey’s paintings, brutal yet sensitive, present a superficial and colorful prettiness that subtly delves into a darker, psychologically challenging place of horror.
The exhibit is on view Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at Heiner Contemporary, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-338-0072.