FEVER DREAM Heyman’s When Photographers Are Blinded.
Beginning in 2005, Daniel Heyman traveled to Jordan and Turkey with American lawyers, collecting testimony from Iraqis of human rights abuses. Sitting in hotel rooms, he sketched the Iraqis' tired faces and jotted down what they said the occupying Americans did to them — midnight arrests, imprisonment, hanging by their arms, tied upside-down, beatings, shoulders dislocated, hair pulled from their chests, raped with sticks, watching family members beaten.
The resulting sober portraits surrounded by harrowing words are the works for which Heyman, who teaches at RISD and lives in Philadelphia, is best known. "Summer Fall Winter Spring," his new show at Cade Tompkins Projects (198 Hope St, Providence, through October 27), collects work bookending that project. (I should note here that I'm scheduled to speak on a panel about war art with Heyman in Massachusetts next month.)
The earliest piece, from his 2004 War Series, mixes copied passages from traditional Asian art with drawings of the iconic hooded, arms-out Abu Ghraib prisoner photo. Heyman is striving to address American torture in Iraq, but gets sidetracked by decorative pattern.
But his 14-foot-wide, multi-part etching When Photographers Are Blinded, Eagles' Wings Are Clipped is a riveting summing up of his feelings. His interview portraits were powered by the Iraqis' words. In this 2010 epic, symbolic images carry the emotional wallop — feet in boots, an eagle with clipped wings, thorny trees, a man lays wounded on the ground with a long, long tongue hanging from his mouth, eagles circle a teetering house of cards depicting a Humvee and ancient Middle Eastern art, a blindfolded photographer takes pictures of the scene, and a naked upside-down man with four eyes gets shot with an arrow and vomits. It's a fever dream of the Iraq war.
The new work here is a series of prints done since 2010 and titled after the seasons. Spring: Artist Contemplates (Inheritance) is an etching printed on wood of the artist holding — I'm told — a Japanese ivory of three blind men fighting over a wooden sandal as he sits in a room flanked by windows or mirrors or paintings (it's ambiguous). Summer: Artist Sleeps is a self-portrait etching of Heyman in a hammock slung between barren trees. Fall: Artist Eats Pho depicts Heyman eating in a restaurant with his host recounting (in words running 6 feet across the bottom) his family's flight from Vietnam, of working in American nail salons, and so on. Winter: Artist Engages is a triptych done in etching and woodcut on plaster tiles. On the left, an owl flies in moonlight. At center, tangled twin naked self-portraits. At right, stark black trees seem to emerge from snow.
The surreal imagery and the awkward draftsmanship that seem to channel war trauma in his big war print often feel just awkward here. There are crackling bits — the mystical twin self-portraits with their multiple eyes, arms, and penises; the stark German Expressionist vibe of the snowy woods cast in low plaster relief — but on the whole, the seasons series feels somewhat adrift, like an artist in between big subjects.