I’m so excited to share the work of Milwaukee-based artist Sean Heiser who is currently finishing up a BFA at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is part of a two-person show opening at artist-led gallery Usable Space in Milwaukee (and I’ve also included a piece of his, pictured third from the end, in a large group exhibition called ‘Friend of a Friend’ in Appleton, WI, at The Draw). Thrilled to share this wonderful interview here, and if you find yourself in Milwaukee, more info about at the links below!
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Can you introduce yourself?
Hi! My name is Sean Heiser and I am an artist currently based in Milwaukee.
I noticed that you’re originally from Malaysia and now live in Milwaukee. Has that geographic change in your background influenced your work or how you think about it?
My family moved to Milwaukee when I was pretty young. I still have family abroad and visit as much as I can, but at this point in my practice, I would say that my background doesn’t influence my work or approach in any direct way. Going forward though, I do want to find ways to more directly integrate my background and experience into my work.
You’re about to graduate with a BFA from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of Arts. How has that experience been? Is there anything about your art education that surprised or challenged you in a way you didn’t anticipate?
My experience in the painting department has been for the most part pretty good. Though it is a small program, there are some brilliant thinkers there that have really contributed to my art practice and to who I am as a person. Specifically Leslie Vansen and Shane Walsh have been really influential teachers for me.
A friend of mine recently brought up the idea that art degrees are only able to touch on a certain range of ideas and techniques, and that maybe the reason so many people fall off after graduating is that they struggle to continue to piece together the rest of the skills needed to sustain an art practice. I think that’s pretty true, and I’ve been thinking about that more as I approach the end of my time in college. Because of the structure it provides, I think that school is for the most part pretty easy, and what will be challenging is building a practice in the next few years. I expect the next year or so to be really challenging and I’m looking forward to that, and to learning how to sustain a studio practice without any outside influence.
Tell me a bit about your practice! You mix abstract and representational elements in your paintings. What kind of ideas or themes do you address?
Lately I’ve been thinking about my work as abstractions that at times traffic in representation. I want to use representation in a way that provides an access point to a viewer, while the rest of the surface is handled in a way that is open to more formal dialogues.
There are also graphic elements to the work. I’ve been inserting moments of sign painting into some of the paintings, photographed from things I’ve seen or that are in and around my neighborhood. This originally began as a way to reflect more of my direct experience into the paintings- I want the paintings to mediate between formal ideas and my own experience, but in ways that I find interesting and avoid cliques of expressive mark-making or material usage.
I used the sign painting too, because historically it’s a really populist and communicative form of art, and I thought that was interesting within the context of painting, as a potential means to provide access to a viewer. While the representational elements started with the sign painting and graphic references, I am working towards ways to expand that.
What is your process like? How long do you typically spend on a piece?
Portions of my work lately have been really process-based. I’ve been doing a lot of staining and experimenting with applications, and then using those less-controlled moments as starting points for the paintings. Some of the paintings are painted mostly from the back. I think about it as a way to insert chance or risk into the paintings, and let go of some of the control. When I look at certain aspects I feel that the haste or inaccuracy is perceptible, and when mixed with other elements it can become pretty engaging. I also like the immediacy that it provides. I enjoy paintings where some elements seem worked quickly and other moments are slow and deliberate. In that way, I think that time can really become part of the content of a work.
The paintings happen pretty quickly, though they take a long time to complete. There is a lot of time between moves, anxiety, and general procrastination that really tacks onto the “time spent on a painting.” I’m hoping that over time that becomes easier and more pleasant to negotiate.
What is your favorite thing about your medium? What challenges you most about it?
I think that my favorite and least favorite thing about my medium is the immediacy. I paint mostly in acrylic and flashe, and I like the quickness that it affords me. Conversely, though, sometimes I feel that it makes my work hastier than it should be. I want to gradually move towards painting in oil.
About painting as a medium in general, I like that it provides such an established structure to work with and against. An established history and dialogue provides lots of content and possibilities, whether your work is about the history of the medium or not.
Simultaneously that can be really challenging and stifling- there are so many great painters making such a wide array of work, that if I spend too much time looking at the work of others, it can feel paralyzing or I’ll lose my train of thought.
How would you describe your studio or workspace? (feel free to send an image!)
I share a pretty large space with my studio-mate Jenna (s/o www.jenna-youngwood.com!), in a warehouse that is bordered by a boatyard and cement factory. I really like it and feel lucky to currently be there, the rent is affordable and there are lots of great artists in the building.
My space itself oscillates between being highly organized and messy, lately more mess than order.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received so far? Is there any advice you’re glad you decided not to take?
Trudy Benson told me to go crazy with the palette and simplify the composition, or go crazy with the composition and simplify the palette, and I think I’ve been doing that and not doing that ever since.
Do you have any particularly significant influences, whether other artists, things you’ve seen, or places you’ve been, etc?
This is always a tough question for me. I think a lot about Polke and Kippenberger, I like how different and eclectic their works were from each other, and that’s something I try and keep in mind throughout my own work. Generally I’ve been looking at a lot of post-painterly abstraction. Other artists whose work I’ve been interested in lately: Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Sascha Braunig, Melissa Brown, Rebecca Morris… the list could go on for a while.
How would you describe “success?”
In the context of painting, I think that making work that you believe in and want to see, and doing so at an active enough level that you are able to be full-time in the studio would be within the realm of “success.” Maybe also growing as a person with your art practice and getting to travel and experience new people and places through art.
Also I suppose the canon 😉
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?
I think that one of the most challenging things for me is normalizing weekly studio times, and the trust required in prioritizing my studio practice over my income-generating job. It is really subtle, where I get drawn into or tired from work or school, and realize I’ve been neglecting my studio practice. I’m getting better at it, but it is definitely challenging.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m making work for a two-person show opening on May 5 in Milwaukee with Jenna Youngwood, at an artist-run gallery named Usable Space.
I’m also preparing for a solo show at the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts [in Fond Du Lac, WI]. Beyond that, I am making work for a solo show in Milwaukee sometime in 2018 at The Alice Wilds.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for running this project and sharing my work. It’s a great resource and has been good practice!
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