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Living in Scenes of Late Capitalism
Review by Bart Gazzola

The Show Room Gallery at NAC is spacious and stark: a sliding garage door and a red EXIT sign are along the back wall, and this compliments Nathan Heuer’s aesthetic. The sterility of the “white cube” of the room argues with that door’s ridges, the concrete floor and other industrial markers: but contested elements are at the core of the work in Scenes from Late Capitalism.

The works are large and minimalist: framed in white, the large sheets of paper are affixed by multiple small round magnets (unpainted. Their gleam catches the lights, but they don’t detract). There’s almost an element of camouflage in how the paper, frames and walls all seem to share the same tonality. Scenes emerge outward from the walls.  

It’s smart, engaging work: I spoke with Heuer at the opening, and his commentary was invaluable. We picked up this conversation recently:

Your exhibition is titled “Scenes of Late Capitalism.” That’s a popular phrase currently; but there’s also an insinuation of an “ending” (late as in deceased) and a funerary quality to the works at NAC.

I’d agree with you that criticism of capitalism is in resurgence. Too often, however, that criticism is directed at easy targets – banks, Wall Street, etc. These entities are loud, visible, and easy to blame for the problems associated with capitalism. Doing so, however, is a simplification of complex socio-economic forces that ignores influential choices that we make on a daily basis.  Consider the drawing This Year’s Remodel, which depicts a chain hotel that was demolished after only a decade of operation. Structurally there was nothing wrong with the hotel. Aesthetically it had become outdated, and consumers quietly made the choice – an act akin to natural selection – to go elsewhere. The hotel chain had to respond to what we might call a selection pressure by constructing a new building. Most of my drawings are designed to illuminate such subtle instances of our complicity in a wasteful system.

For me it’s sobering to recognize the elusiveness of this problem. As the Western brand of consumerism spreads globally, it seems that little can be done to curb the sheer wastefulness of such an outlook. It also seems futile to ask consumers to make choices whose benefits are not obvious for them in the short term. I hope that the drawings will provoke questions from the viewer about the long-term consequences of everyday decisions. If not, then the works will indeed have a funerary quality.

Several “Scenes” are real places, with real stories behind them: others have a universal quality that connects with places like STC, with its own economic history. Tell us about some of the individual places you’ve depicted, and how important is that to your ideas / artwork?

I’ll discuss two drawings. The New Rural Economy depicts an abandoned Ohio farm. While there’s a stark Andrew Wyeth-like beauty in such a scene, the striking feature of this site was the barn’s repurposing as a billboard announcing “GUNS! EXIT 215”. I was immediately struck by the potential to portray two intersecting narratives: the death of the family farm and the rising popularity of firearms, especially military-style firearms, in rural America. Local farms are particularly threatened by capitalism and globalism. Consumers desire a variety of crops year round, which is unrealistic in places like Ohio. While small changes were made for compositional purposes, the scene that was the inspiration for this drawing required little adjustment. This was true of some of the simplest details, such as the font used for the advertisement. It seems, in my observation, that most advertisements for firearms require exclamation marks and bold fonts like Impact (the visual equivalent of yelling).

The drawing Signs required a dramatically different approach. Also set in Ohio, it depicts the demise of a town built around a freeway stop, again due to shifts in consumer preference. In Signs, I wondered how I could reduce the story of a town’s collapse to a singular image without losing the significance of the event. In the end, I used defunct freeway signs as a symbol of former prosperity. The shapes of the signs, whose lettering is long gone, remind the viewer that they have been heavily branded by familiar franchises. The actual site that inspired this drawing is quite different from what’s depicted. The signs are much farther apart, and far less variable in height. In the finished drawing, all of the elements are compressed together, so that the viewer may take in the totality

of the town’s demise quickly. A large chunk of empty space was added to the right, creating a sense of movement. In this way the viewer becomes an indifferent observer, simply passing by in a vehicle.

Your process (graphite / watercolour) is traditional, and very disciplined. There’s a photo realist quality here. How does your work fit into the history of these sites, and how do you see your work fitting into the larger dialogue about small towns, industry and the economy? I’m thinking of the book Methland, for example, and what that says about the rural economy and how communities cope (positively, negatively) with the economic decline?

Filmmakers and psychologists often discuss the phenomena of transportation, a term that describes how immersed the viewer has become in the narrative. For me, working realistically is the most logical means to aid the viewer in entering the depicted spaces. All of the drawings are in some way inspired by a real place, even if they are carefully rearranged to most effectively tell the narrative. They’re the kinds of places that result from the shortsighted consumer decisions that I mentioned earlier.  

In the end I’m closely connected with communities that have experienced economic decline. I grew up in Michigan, a state that’s struggled to redefine itself in the post-industrial, Late Capitalist era. My home state embodies many of the issues that I am addressing in my work.  It is, for example, defined by massive contrasts between urban and rural areas. What has been clear, however, is that that there’s an intrinsic relationship between urban and rural areas, and when one area is struggling, so is the other. For me, this is indicative of the trickle down of globalization.

Nate Heuer’s Scenes From Late Capitalism is on display until September 30th, 2016.