Absence and Presence and Binary Visualization: Translating the Paintings of Heather Gordon

I have had an artist crush on Heather Gordon for years.  You know the kind — super intelligent, impeccable craftsmanship, stunningly articulate, and endearingly crass.  So when Heather agreed to sit down for an interview for this blog, I must admit that I got a few butterflies of excitement in my stomach.  But by the time I’d set the pot of coffee on the stove, Heather’s jokes had set me at ease.

Starting in 2008, Heather began developing experiments in data visualization surrounding the ambiguity of communication.  In particular, she’s attracted to how information is recorded and transmitted, stored and shared, interpreted and encoded. Much of this work involves converting data from its original analog (written text and audio) to digital (binary strings of 1′s and 0′s).

After graduating with a BFA and running her own art supply store, Heather was craving a challenge.  So she enrolled in several computer science and programming courses at UNC-Asheville.  In her labs, she always named her variables after characters from famous books.  When a young undergraduate classmate asked her who Ahab was, the direction of her artwork shifted in a flash:

I realized that you can be quite literate in one language [such as programming] and completely illiterate in another [such as classic literature].  You can read information and not comprehend or access the fully meaning of it.

And so she began creating “legible” data (because it has been created according to a rule-based system that you can understand) and testing the boundaries of how comprehensible that data can be after round after round of translation.

Her Comparatives series compares, both visually and numerically, three content sources surrounding a controversial topic. The source material is presented as 7-bit binary, and plotted in ink on ECG paper, column by column, along with a numeric equivalent.

In looking at a variety of information for these works, what intrigues her is what is included and what is absent in the source text.  The meaning of these messages were manufactured and biased, and her algorithm attaches specific value to what is visible. In Duchampian fashion, she includes a numeric running total on each ECG panel with a grand total at the far end of each body of content so as to tally the winner of each argument which is the subject of the work.

Floor project at Cocoa Cinnamon by Heather Gordon

In the most simple terms, her work is about absence and presence.  Information becomes meaningful through the perception of difference.  Sound is comprehensible because of surrounding silence. The Ones become legible in relationship to the Zeros.

Even the locations for her work reflect this obsession with absence and presence.  One of her most recent works – a floor painting at the community coffee shop Cocoa Cinnamon – brings her theories and explorations out of the isolated “art world” of galleries and studio spaces and makes it truly present in the communication of a thriving and vocal atmosphere.

As Cady Childs over at the Clarion Content wrote:

[Leon and Areli’s] aim is to create a coffee house as comfortable to its patrons as their own homes would be, while presenting a menu that is an artistic expression all on its own…

The painting in the front room is a reflection of this philosophy. When someone, literally, walks across it to enter the main part of the shop, they’re playing hopscotch along a criss-crossing binary-coded map of words, discovery, romance, and travel. The colored blocks are a combination of three different texts: part of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, a passage from the Persian 13th century poet Rumi, and Ann Druyan’s brainwaves from her recording of the experience of love for the Voyager’s ‘Golden Record’. Gordon worked with Areli to select the colors to represent the binary patterns of these three, ending up with a viscerally stunning work that catches your eye while becoming a vital part of the space at the same time.

Her new exhibition series How to Fold My Heart: Three Mothers, Daughters, and Wives (currently on display at Artspace in Raleigh, NC) explores how we permanently represent the uniquely ephemeral qualities of the people and places that define our lives.

Heather Gordon, "How to Fold My Heart," 48in x 84in, latex and graphite on canvas

Heather Gordon, “How to Fold My Heart,” 48in x 84in, latex and graphite on canvas

Through our relationships to friends, family and geographic spaces, we come to understand who we are and navigate the complexity of choices that create the path of our personal narratives. Can these relationships be visualized? Can this visual expression be read, like a fingerprint, holding all the unique relationships intact?

As we tumbled around these theories about “data visualization” and “communication” and “comprehension”, Heather and I really bonded over an inescapable fact that plagues all artists (even… perhaps especially?… the intelligent ones): we all make our share of bad — trite, pretentious, derivative, meaningless — shit.

In art, there is no correct answer.  You can’t run a formula and get it right.  It’s all theoretical.  You can say this is good, and I can say that it is shit, and we are equally right.

Heather’s pointed interest in the perceptible moment when information becomes meaningful rather than illegible and incomprehensible data has proved to be a deep dive into a well of creative fuel.  She is constantly concocting new methods for considering “communication”.

However, when we artists spend too much time in our own heads, the creative wheels begin to spin and slip gears.  To combat wheel-spinning-creative-block, Heather set up her studio at Golden Belt in Durham, which houses 40+ artists in a renovated textile mill.  She openly advocates for working in a communal studio space as a way for soliciting feedback and absorbing new perspectives on the world.

What topic do you refuse to let go?  What concept keeps you awake at night?  How do you keep approaching that topic from new angles?  Who do you talk to about your ideas / painting / writing / music in order to get a fresh perspective?

Heather Gordon received her B.F.A. from the University of Florida in 1990 and her M.F.A. from New Mexico State University in 1995. She has taught painting, drawing, design, and art appreciation courses in numerous locations from 1992 to1999, and has given lectures about her work at SAS, Cassilhaus, the Ackland Art Museum, and Greenhill. Gordon regularly exhibits locally and nationally.  Learn more about her artwork at http://www.heather-gordon.com/.

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