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Review: Heather Keton’s Transformation within the Landscape

By Chunbum Park


"When I Left New York I Gave My Paints to Loris On Purpose," acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2022

Recently, I met a very interesting person who told me about the painters in Norway, who used intensely off deep blues for the sky. His name was Ed, and he explained that, closer to the North Pole, the sky radiates with such intensity that most people would not understand its depiction. Heather Keton has gone the opposite direction – down south from Brooklyn, New York, to El Paso, Texas – and has shown in her paintings a transformation as a person and an artist. Her solo show at the La Cȏte Lapin, a small basement gallery in Brooklyn, is titled, “Praxis Candy Mountainscapes,” and is curated by Mark Quinlan, her longtime friend. In this exhibition, one can immerse themselves in the vivid Southwestern American landscapes, which transcend any literal interpretation and leap into the realm of abstract experiences, the spiritual, and the sublime.

"Penguins And Daughters," acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches, 2023

Keton’s new body of work contrasts with her previous works in that she now pursues an abstraction based on observation, which opposes the entirely abstract and internally composed pieces inspired by the Abstract Expressionism in the works prior to 2020. There is also a greater sense of spatial orientation with up, down, left, and right in her new works, whereas the Abstract Expressionist paintings had a less clear sense of direction in space. Furthermore, she interprets and breaks down the light and form in a minimalistic and geometric manner, contrary to the organic forms that were prevalent in the former body of works. And lastly, the vibrant colors feel “translucent,” meaning that they convey a sense of light and its transitions, as well as spiritual emotions. This contrasts highly with the colors of her earlier works, which relied on the use of white for highlight and contrast, and which often felt opaque, rich, but muddy.

Left: "A Gift for The Host," acrylic on canvas 20 x 20 inches, 2023

Right: "High Six," acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches, 2023

The use of acrylic, too, is an interesting choice for Keton, who used to paint in oil. Acrylic is much more environmentally friendly, and certain brands or lineups may exclude a lot of the toxic, heavy chemicals. The painting almost feels like oil, however, with texture, body, and consistency; it does not feel like plastic. The use of acrylic most likely allows the artist to scumble or paint wet or dry, which results in very neatly formed shapes and planes of color. An oil painting would take too long to dry, meaning that wet on dry is not really feasible within a short span of time. Keton must spend a long time on color mixing to get the precise color so that the painting works together in harmony rather than cacophony.

"The Opposite of Boston," acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches, 2023

Abstraction and the conveyance of abstract experiences in observing nature are an integral part of Keton’s paintings. In “The Gift for The Host,” the way the moon’s movement dots the sky in the trail of an arc and then leaves a trace by dipping concavely below the landscape is a playful visual experiment. In “I Ruined My Dress That Night but The DJ Was So Good (for Cheryl),” the sun’s beams that radiate in a semicircular form fragments and interlocks with the rectangular form of the plateau, allowing us to view the sun setting even after the sun has gone behind and beneath the plateau. This play with time and space, and movement is a treat for the viewers with a keen eye. In “Disco Chateau Above the Celebrants at Vernajoul,” the river or the flow of lava in the base of the valley is bleeding with an accent of red and pink. A simple diagonal divide between black and ultraviolet indicates either a coming dawn or night. The darkness in this painting is neither sinister nor intimidating; the darkness is a familiar fact of nature that hides everything including both the predator and the prey. The strong and clear geometry in Keton’s paintings contribute to the monumental nature of the works despite their relatively modest sizes, which are all 20 x 20 inches or 30 x 30 inches.

"Naming Shapes or Feelings, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2022

There is a strong clarity to her landscapes that reveal to the viewer that Keton has transformed to a higher, spiritual, and orderly plane, unlike the beautiful chaos of her preceding self. Nature and the southwestern landscape visible outside her patio are perhaps the source of this deep and profound change, providing her with the power to conceive of and believe in her vision. Her predecessors who walked the same path may include Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin, both of whom lived and worked in solitude in New Mexico. The women who chose to live in such conditions remind us of the Buddhist monks or the ascetics, who refuse to chase after the latest craze or fads in the city but find their own meaning through self-reflection and contemplation in the meditative depths of nature. We are reminded of a quote from the poet, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life… to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...” The minimalistic and geometrically reduced forms and colors comprise an aesthetical philosophy that reflects Keton’s new philosophy on life and art – life should be a pursuit of something that is authentic and rings true to oneself, and that authentic vision is not necessarily predicated on seeking more and more material things but may in fact be found within all of us through introspection.

"I Ruined My Dress That Night but The DJ Was So Good (for Cheryl)," acrylic on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2022

Keton’s philosophy appears to me to be that life, as it is, is profound and beautiful, that less is more, and that there is the spiritual within every one of us. For Keton, abstraction, and the perception of abstract qualities of nature provide the vehicle with which to enter the spiritual plane of life. Her paintings provide something that many paintings nowadays in the postmodern age are unable to deliver (as they are often carried away by materialism and desire). Keton’s paintings are a window into the plane of spirituality and abstract thoughts; they are a window in the room to an infinite possibility within abstract ideas and the spiritual plane.

"Sharpish Past the Red Villas, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches, 2023"

"Disco Chateau Above the Celebrants at Vernajoul, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 inches, 2023"

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