Sometimes when you walk into an art gallery opening, there’s a lot of craziness. The space can be packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people sipping booze and chatting loudly, and it can be difficult to actually get a good idea of the art you’re looking at through the sea of bright red lips and thick-rimmed glasses. While these aren’t ideal conditions for someone aiming to write an article about the art (like myself), having a glowing room of excited and supportive patrons is both a great sign for the artist showing her work, and fun!
The aforementioned describes the scene where I met Conceptual Artist Suzanne Heintz: the bustling opening night of her show “Playing House” in Chelsea at the JoAnne Artman Gallery. While I couldn’t get a thorough grasp of the story behind her work at the opening, the striking, absurd, brightly colored photographs depicting Heintz with her husband and daughter in Paris, among other settings, stuck with me. This is because I learned that unlike my family and most likely yours, Heintz’s husband and daughter are actually life-sized fiberglass mannequins, or as she lovingly dubs them, “familyquins.”
With this in mind I decided to dive further into researching Heintz and her work, and what I found was, unexpectedly, a perfect story for the holidays — a time when for some singles, it can feel like there is added pressure from either society, family or self to be in a relationship.
Heintz, a conceptual artist, 20-year veteran art director at Starz, and self-proclaimed spinster among other things, recalls sitting around with her mom one day having a conversation that, per Heintz’s entry in the Huffington Post Blog, went along the lines of: “Suzy, there’s nobody perfect out there. You just need to PICK somebody, if you’re going to settle down.” [Heintz] snapped back, “Mom! It’s not like I can go out and BUY a family! I can’t just MAKE it happen!”
Then, one day shortly following this conversation, Heintz was walking around and passed by a shop that happened to have a “family” of mannequins for sale in the window. She had an “aha!” moment, and decided to literally “buy” herself a family: a husband, who she calls Chauncey, and an “eight year old” daughter, who she named Mary Margaret. Starting at that moment, Heintz set out on a fourteen year journey carrying Chauncey and Mary Margaret around to various locations, filled with countless family photo and video ops including holidays, European vacations and even a wedding.
Heintz does an incredible job of adding a dose of smart humor (plus what is now likely upwards of a decade and a half of mind blowing dedication) to her critical examination of an important topic. On one hand, with this project Heintz comments on normative role expectations for women, encouraging them to embrace their lives regardless of whether or not they have an “Mrs., PhD, or Esq. attached to their name.” On another, according to the JoAnne Artman Gallery, Heintz also comments on “The American Dream and the pressure to conform.” To note, I found the tie to The American Dream interesting because in 2015, that phrase, in its original sense, can seem antiquated. Stemming off of that, I think it could be an interesting follow-up study to examine Heintz’s work in the context of other artists who work with the idea of The American Dream, both currently and throughout art history.
Finally, Heintz’s work is really interesting to look at within the context of today’s era of social media (especially since Heintz began her “family life” with Chauncey and Mary Margaret before social networks really took off in a mainstream way). Specifically, people frequently post photos across various social channels that seem to demonstrate that they are fulfilling ideals of happiness, but for all anyone really knows, they may as well be posing with mannequins. Per the JoAnne Artman Gallery, Heintz’s use of “radioactive color and expressionless characters hint at the darker side of conformity, namely what is lost when the image, or illusion, of happiness is confused with happiness itself.”
Suzanne Heintz’s “Playing House” is showing at the JoAnne Artman Gallery through December 31st, 2015. Check it out in person if you’re in Chelsea this holiday season, and feel free to bring along your significant other. All shapes, sizes and materials are welocme.