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Alumni Voices: Daniel Heyman

An Interview with Artist-in-Residence Daniel Heyman, Dartmouth Class of 1985

Hood Quarterly, spring 2014
Juliette Bianco, Deputy Director, and Daniel Heyman, Artist-in-Residence 

In fall 2013, Daniel Heyman, Dartmouth Class of 1985, was artist-in-residence at the College. A print from the Hood Museum of Art’s 2007 purchase of his powerful Amman series from the Abu Ghraib Project (2006) is featured in the current exhibition In Residence: Contemporary Artists at Dartmouth, on view through July 6. Hood Deputy Director Juliette Bianco, Dartmouth Class of 1994, caught up with Heyman in the final weeks of his residency.

JULIETTE BIANCO (JB): You’re back on campus for the longest period of time since you graduated—what’s changed?

DANIEL HEYMAN (DH): The facilities are incredible—the campus has grown, it seems, twice in size since I was here, but the student population has not grown. The Hood went up the year that I graduated, and it still looks incredible, especially with the new view from the plaza. So much postmodern architecture was insincere, but this one feels really sincere. The other great building is the Hop; it is outrageously of its own time. And now you have the Visual Arts Center—it is an art school, with the potential to be a great art school. They should have three hundred majors!

JB: What have been some highlights of your time as artist-in-residence?

DH: I’ve had a lot of interactions with students. I met with a couple of different studio art classes and with students who run the student art gallery, and I did individual critiques with students about their work. I also met with Hood Director Michael Taylor’s seminar class in my show in the Hopkins Center, and then we talked in the Hood’s show, Picasso: The Vollard Suite. I find the students are polite almost to a fault—I remember that I was like that too, when I was here. They are incredibly bright and full of energy and very verbal. It’s interesting to learn what they see and how they describe that. Teaching is so natural to me, and I’ve enjoyed it and hope they got something out of it.

JB: How have you used the Hood and other areas on campus as a resource?

DH: I’ve been to the Hood about twenty times! It didn’t exist when I was a student. The way it is being used now is a really positive note on this campus. This kind of integration, of the Hood, the library—I took two classes to Rauner to look at artist’s books—and the visual arts, is really nice. I went to the Hood’s Bernstein Study-Storage Center with the intention of looking at Orozco’s drawings, and then I learned that Munakata Shik was on campus for a year in the mid-1960s—he’s an incredible favorite of mine—and that the Hood has a bunch of his work. So instead I spent time with those and then went back another day to look at the Orozco drawings.

JB: I can see from your work in the studio that you’ve been looking at Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization. What is your interest in the mural and how are you responding to it?

DH: I’m doing gouache studies from the murals. The Gods of the Modern World panel has been particularly interesting to me. I am kind of intrigued with how they influenced me when I was a student here, because I know that they did. They are really narrative based and they are not contemporary, but they are twentieth century. When I left Dartmouth, I went to Europe and started interviewing people about their memories in World War II on a Reynolds Grant, and I started thinking about painting as a way to tell stories. Then I got to grad school, and they said, “No, contemporary painting doesn’t tell stories. You have to get all that out of your work.” Maybe the storytelling comes from the Orozco mural. Also, my back’s been hurting this term, and so I am paying special attention to the skeleton and exploring that.

JB: Orozco did ingeniously intertwine personal narrative, historical narrative, and invention.

DH: Yes, and the mural is so radical and still so relevant today. It is radical that Dartmouth had this guy come and make these anti-capitalist murals. He did not promote a different system but rather analyzed where they were at that time. It connects to what we were talking about earlier with the architecture on campus. These murals also show the courage of that time. We need to do that again—we can’t be timid.

JB: How does that notion connect to your approach to your work now?

DH: I feel like I should only spend time on things that need to be said. Being an artist is such a great gift, to be able to observe your own time and then do something about it. If you are not going to take that opportunity, then why be an artist in the first place? There was a great line in the movie Le Mystére Picasso where the artist said, while observing an unfinished work, “Let’s push it and see where it can go.” That’s the point of being an artist.

JB: Orozco questioned how artists, as observers, could—or whether they should—respond to partisan politics in their work. What are your thoughts?

DH: If you’re political, you can’t take ten years over your work like I do. Obamacare’s rollout is going to be gone in six months. But the bigger issue about, say, how the government will be involved with people who have so little, or are we as a country more individualist or collectivist—those are the bigger issues that will last. For me, as a visual artist engaged in the incredibly slow process of thinking about an idea, making prints about it, and getting the work out there, you can’t be partisan in that way.

JB: Your work demonstrates a genuine interest in individual narratives as well as the big stories, and you’ve talked a lot about the importance of bearing witness. What is your relationship with your subject as one who witnesses and records?

DH: We are all individual people, and so we relate to big stories through little stories. I’ve always felt that the best way to tell a big story is through a personal one. We hopefully all relate to the emotions of being afraid or the emotions of being in love, for example. I was really upset that the United States could use torture as a tool of policy. That’s the point I wanted to address in my work. You can address that in an essay or through trying to convey what it would feel like if you were at the receiving end of that policy.

JB: What do you get out of your work?

DH: The engagement and the ability to move my thoughts forward are what I get out of it. I read recently that the commission of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in Florence lasted twenty-seven years. Can you imagine working on something for that long, and really having the time to figure out what you want to say? I learn as I go along, thinking on so many levels about how some aspects of my work relate to other aspects, and to the work of others. There are so many rich, interconnected questions.

JB: What else are you working on while you are at Dartmouth?

DH: I have become increasingly interested in the resonance between humans and primates. I saw a gorilla at the Philadelphia Zoo this summer. There was one male gorilla that kept charging into the glass wall between us, and it got me thinking about them and us, and about some books I’ve been reading on evolution. I am also doing a work about the Ellsworth Kelly and the [Louise Bourgeois] spider down on the plaza. It’s actually going to be hard to leave; I feel like I’m just getting going!

JB: It has been a pleasure having you here on campus, Daniel. Thank you very much.

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