Artist Paul Heyer reveals stories behind five artworks from his latest exhibition


For Paul Heyer, art is a means of blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. The Chicago native covers a spectrum of themes in his works—the great unknown, Catholic symbolism, and queer rave culture are all at play on his silk chiffon canvases—while keeping his pieces cohesive through his choice of materials.

In his first-ever solo exhibition, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Heyer creates his own realm where he can juxtapose concrete forms with abstract entities and factual history with human memory. A meditative soundtrack will play throughout the exhibition as visitors move through it—further allowing the artist to transport viewers from a gallery space into a dream-like, probably pastel-colored, corner of his mind. We asked Heyer to select five of the works that will be included in this show as a way to further explain his creative process.

10,000 YEARS, 2017

PAUL HEYER: The idea for this painting came spontaneously late one night in the studio. I just liked the poetic quality of this time span. Ten thousand years seemed like the largest chunk of time that we can visualize without becoming disoriented. Something like infinity, by contrast, has to be pictured more cinematically, like, “Oh you keep going, then keep going, then keeping going…” Ten thousand years is a chunk you can hold onto with one huge thought-hug. So I thought it would be satisfying to shorthand this span in a relatively modest painting. The number is hand-written in charcoal atop a simple dusky sky that recalls inspirational advertising or Christian messaging.

MODEL(S) OF THE UNIVERSE(S) AS BROOM(S), 2016. Photograph by Jason Mandella.

HEYER: I like to think about unknown unknowns, because it frees me up to use my imagination. We make so many assumptions based on our individual vision-slice of our world. While scientists are getting a better and better picture of the actual shape of our universe, I love the idea of saying, “Screw it; let’s just pretend it’s like a giant broom. Or a dog bone. Or a cigarette. Or whatever.” So this installation has dozens of different kinds of brooms, all with different states of wear and personality, that I’ve burned to black and covered with bits of shell to resemble the night sky. I love the idea that your universe and mine are very different, even if there is conceptual overlap. It’s like Fantasia meets [Belgian artist René] Magritte meets comedown crafting session. My mom actually found the best brooms in this selection by asking her friends and family. There’s a tiny, gnarly, lobby broom that she got from her mailman that I love because it’s so vulnerable looking, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. The operation is one of taking something humble and turning it into something grand by simple means. It’s a broom—but more than a broom, it’s the whole universe.

HEAVEN, 2017

HEYER: This painting is a flattened out depiction of the branches of an apple tree, but the apples are a radioactive blue, and the picture is marred by large white circles. Heaven is inspired by the time I would spend in the forest near my house south of Chicago when I was in middle school. I would hang out there alone or with my best friend for hours, staring into space, trying cigarettes, or foraging for edible plants. I’m interested in the collapse between “manmade” and “natural,” words that are increasingly confusing or irrelevant. And as is the case in 10,000 Years, I like to play with a kind of storybook aesthetic, because it can make otherwise jarring content approachable. Blue apples aren’t jarring in themselves, but the white orbs hang like alien apparitions or stand-ins for everything that is outside our comprehension. It’s like when conspiracy theorists say that aliens have new technology for us, but they don’t think we’re ready for it. I like to think about abstract ways to depict concepts that would make our heads explode. So sometimes I’ll use colors like silver, black, or white to depict things outside our brains’ ability to fathom, things like infinity. The painting is very visually charged. I want these large panels to have the intensity of seeing things with a young or fresh pair of eyes.



HEYER: This painting is part of the same suite as Heaven. It shows a blue and pink skinned cowboy stooping over the edge of a pond to drink water, painted on transparent metallic silk. I love the simplicity and almost stupidity of the subject: Drinking Water or You Need Water to Live. It’s so simple it kind of freezes your brain. The cowboy is like St. Francis or a solitary Zen monk, alone on the range with no company but nature. He’s also a metaphor for the artist, with his blue skin suggesting something mutant, angelic, or dreamlike. It’s also an homage to the Spanish Renaissance artist El Greco and his weirdly colored people who are always hovering somewhere between heaven and earth. I grew up super Catholic—this painting shows how it’s hard to shake the symbolism I picked up. Maybe the water is more than just water, just like maybe the brooms are more than brooms. That’s the Catholic way, [laughs] but it’s also a useful mind trick.

I AM THE SKY (VERSION 1: BORN), 2016. Photo by Robert Heishman.

HEYER: I’ve done a few iterations of this piece. The first one was for my show at Night Gallery in 2016. I Am the Sky is like a koan to me, another trick of the mind. I like suggesting the viewer play make believe for a second. We’ve all imagined what it’s like to be a bird or a superhero, but imagine what it would be like to be the sky. A lot of my work posits that the real building block of everything is not quark or particle-wave of light, but imagination. Or it at least asks you to pretend that it is. So this piece has that quasi-religious, vaguely ravey tone that pops up a lot in my work. I want it to be almost too much, so that the viewer has to relax into it a little.