Visual Arts

As American As . . . Heidi Hesse

What does it mean to be an American?

I have a hunch it's a question many U.S. citizens rarely consider. Sometimes, it is not until others define us that we gain clarity about ourselves -- and our nation. Heidi Hesse -- born in Germany and raised in South Africa -- is in the process of becoming an American citizen. Her art proves she's a viable candidate to explore the aspects that define one as American.

Hesse is a guest artist at eye lounge this month. Her show, "All American," touches on features of American personality with a fresh, positive angle -- maybe. To make the work, Hesse, who lives in Phoenix, left the country -- but not for her native Germany. Her show includes a number of acrylic paintings created as part of a performance art piece by Hesse at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul titled Apple Pie Project. Hesse recorded the reactions of Korean participants sampling her homemade apple pies. This remarkable idea proved to be a challenge, as she was in a country whose cuisine doesn't include baked goods. Hesse had to scrounge a used pizza oven (among other rare utensils) to bake the pies during her seven-month stay in Korea.

Having filmed the event, Hesse "kept seeing paintings" while editing the footage. The result is four painted stills showing two Koreans just before and during their tasting of an apple pie. The hesitant expressions of the participants show a unique and clever engagement with a culture very different from our own, contrasting with the American affection typically displayed toward this dessert. Something so familiar and comforting is suddenly portrayed as an exotic and threatening food, providing a pointed reminder of our own "otherness."

Hesse's show also includes a series of small, framed pieces that provide a clear indication of her warm feelings toward America. Each has a simple white background with colorful stenciled letters reading "I love America" and other quotes from patriotic songs. This frank celebration of the U.S. -- at least on the surface -- is somewhat surprising. America is rarely a subject matter praised by the visual arts, and this contrast to our expectations is both refreshing and inspiring.

Knowing that the artist is seeking citizenship causes us to reflect on our own relationships with this country. Hesse's declaration of love for America led me to wonder, "Do I love America?" Her excitement about this country caused me to ask, "Am I proud to be American?" No matter what the answer, Hesse's work encouraged me to consider my own citizenship and reminded me that I am an American in personality, attitude and perception.

This current show appears one-dimensional in its scope -- at first. But Hesse's previous work gives it context. She has a history of playing on American icons with a sense of irony (and a sense of humor). In 2004, she executed Sugar Coated in which a life-size Humvee was covered in colorful gumballs.

In Camouflaged Liberties, she works in a similar vein. This 30-inch-by-22-inch acrylic painting is blanketed in camouflage, with the pattern slightly shifting to reveal the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty. Here, she opens the door to an alternate reading of her current show. Is this outright criticism, rather than praise? Sarcasm?

I believe that, instead of painting it all with one brush, we are meant to understand Hesse's multifaceted relationship with this country and her resulting mix of opinions. It is her ability to simultaneously proclaim her love and criticism that makes her American and reminds us of our own complicated relationships with this country. In this current climate of black or white politics, it is reassuring to see someone relish in the gray.

So what does it mean to be American? The best part about this show, I believe, is that it gives each viewer a chance for personal discourse. And that's what being American should be all about. America's lucky to have Heidi Hesse.