Abby Heller-Burnham, New York, and the Twenty-First Century Pt. 1

Though the formal aspect of Abby Heller-Burnham’s work is indebted to French Neo-Classicists Ingres and David, the thematic narratives embedded in her paintings, which hinge on usages of humor, irony, and rhetorical incisiveness, owe a surprising debt to post-modernity, and the conceptual post-modern art which has dominated NYC’s Chelsea galleries for several decades. Specifically, Abby’s narratives of the body, of femininity, and of queerness do the post-modern trick of moving past form to reach unadulterated thematic goals. Why the formal components which complicate Heller-Burnham’s paintings also add several more narratives (of aesthetic form itself, of aesthetic histories, and of America establishing a new, form-driven discourse with historical Europe), completing a well-rounded package which has in it the insignia balance and major high art consonance of the Philly Free School, is that we all, in Aughts Philly, argued that narratives of form itself are as interesting and as rich as thematic narratives, and created accordingly, against the American sanctioned and normative. Yet, the chiasmus which presents itself here between New York and Philadelphia has its own level of richness, and its own narrative— specifically, about form and formal rigor, and why, at a certain point, early in the new century, a group of American artists decided to investigate past what was indigenously in our blood, towards an embrace of the historical.

Abby’s “Meeting Halfway” takes us right into the heart and the heat of the New York-Philly chiasmus and conflict— a painting which grants equal time and attention to concept and form, establishing an essential multi-tiered narrative in the process. About queerness, what “Meeting Halfway” establishes is a sense of nuanced, practical particulars— Abby and her twin/muse only partly face each other as they emerge from their respective pupas, into— what? Respective adulthood? Sexual awareness? Consonance with a queer vision of life? As Abby and her muse “meet halfway,” their matching postures are ambiguous— they are bare-breasted, but covering their breasts. How I take the essential thematic narrative of the painting is that it defines a sense of isolation, alienation, and “half-sisterhood” among gay women. Here, the formal narrative is rather raw for Heller-Burnham— yet the graceful sense of added ornaments softens the construct, and the expert drawing and coloration fills it out into balanced major high art consonance. Yet, I can’t not notice that Robert Mapplethorpe is in Abs’ blood somewhere here— the awareness that queerness in art necessitates confrontation, and that queer alienation and intimacy are so oddly entwined as to be (or become) interchangeable. The boldness and bluntness of “Meeting Halfway” is very New York— it amounts to a declaration, both of queer independence and queer complexity. Mapplethorpe does similar tricks, with even more phallic boldness and bluntness— but his formal narrative is a piddling one compared to Abby’s, and creates a sense of impoverishment around his work. Indeed, Mapplethorpe’s impoverishment is New York’s— incomplete or inadequate narratives of form, and a totalized reliance on theme and thematic (conceptual) narratives, without explanation of why form needs to auto-destruct.