Rachel Hecker has made art from the ephemera of daily life — the kinds of stray bits and pieces of paper you find floating around in your desk drawer, tucked in your wallet or stuffed in your purse. In Hecker's hands, grocery lists, store receipts, fortune cookie fortunes, Post-it notes and the like are memorialized and monumentalized as paintings on canvas.
"My world is really small and you are in it" is Hecker's first show at Texas Gallery in seven years. Her last solo show at the gallery, the 2002 "sad and pissed" ["Dead Cats," by Kelly Klaasmeyer, February 21, 2002], was intensely autobiographical, chronicling the artist's breakup with a longtime girlfriend who ran off with a wealthy older man. But the work wasn't the kind of self-absorbed, hermetic art we see some artists produce when they use their life as artistic fodder. Using a pop vocabulary of cartoon figures and Batman-style word bubbles, Hecker created a funny yet moving body of work that anyone who had ever gone through a breakup could relate to.
"My world" is autobiographical in a similar way — all the scraps of paper and notes are Hecker's. Each one, no doubt, holds particular memories and associations for the artist. But they also trigger associations for the viewer. We've all got crap like this, and therefore the work resonates in a really visceral way. We know what it's like to look at an ostensibly meaningless bit of paper in an old billfold and suddenly be moved to Proustian reverie.
Forty paintings in various sizes and shapes are leaned up against opposite walls of the gallery. They overlap each other in the same way piles of papers on a desk overlap. Hecker has vastly — but proportionately — enlarged her subjects. A circular canvas reads "$4.99 with Card." It's 20 inches in diameter, a painted replica of a Day-Glo orange grocery store sticker. It rests against a six-by-four-foot canvas depicting a page from a pink phone message pad. The caller is written as "somebody."
Another work mixes similarly quotidian poetry with actual poetry. A page torn from a blue-lined notepad is perfectly rendered; on it, a neatly handwritten grocery list has stuff like "pizza," "soymilk" and "cocoa" circled. "This is not a caravan of despair — Rumi" is hastily written across the top of the page, a quote from the Sufi poet of love, just another thing not to forget. Next to this painting is a larger painting of a page from a "Four Points Sheraton" memo pad with directions scrawled across it — from where to where? The following canvas is a "HELLO my name is" badge with "God" printed on it — it looks like a holy relic from a Unitarian meet-and-greet.
There is the painting of a yellow Post-it note with "important" written across it. Removed from its purpose, the Post-it itself — and by extension the painting — becomes the thing labeled "important." In another painting, the word "wrong" is penned on a vivid orange paint swatch labeled "ripe melon." Each bit of ephemera hints at a multitude of possible narratives.
As with her show "sad and pissed," it's not important to know the details behind the paintings. But they can give added poignancy. A painting of lined notebook paper has "Love, Barbara" written on it several times, as if someone were practicing their signature. But it's not the bravado mark of a teenager exploring her script flourishes as she explores her identity. The handwriting is neat but shaky, the penmanship of a woman whose careful script has been made wobbly by age. Hecker has spent the past five years caring for her elderly mother, Barbara. The painting records an incredibly touching artifact.
The works are rendered with excruciating exactness. Hecker tapes off straight lines and projects the parts with her handwriting, but other than that, the paintings are old-school, hand-done stuff. The artist points out that carefully tracing her own handwriting is somewhat ironic, but it's the only way to capture the unselfconsciousness of the hastily jotted note. This attention to detail is also evident when you look at the paintings up close and see the deliberate layers of paint built up on the clear gesso grounds. There is a lot of talk about a return to craftsmanship and quality these days, but in the case of this work, that kind of care makes these paintings and their unassuming subjects all the more powerful.
If there was anything I could change, I'd like to see the paintings done on rigid board and made more object-like. The canvases seem to be a practical concession; they are lighter and easier to move and store and are probably less prone to warping. But Hecker's overall project is so successful that quibbling about painting supports seems pretty petty.
I do wish there hadn't been such a long wait for this show, for our sake and for Hecker's. Had she debuted this a year ago or so, it surely would have sold out. Hecker is presenting an incredible body of work in an incredibly bad art market.
But sold-out show or not, Hecker is a masterful artist both technically and conceptually. In "my world is really small and you are in it," she has produced beautifully executed work that is also emotionally pitch-perfect. Making the personal universal may be an art cliché, but it is also an intensely difficult thing to do.