Artist StatementI manipulate words in paint. Out of art school I took what work I could get, mostly warehouse, stockroom and delivery truck driver work. I landed a job at an ad agency as a paste-up artist, just jamming letters into spaces. Little grocery ads. Cutting and pasting, fitting forms into spaces. Until there was literally nothing left, just packed in, wall to wall. That seemed to stick with me. I got freelance work doing multimedia slide shows in the pre-computer era. In multimedia work when you project the words it’s really obvious when there are compositional problems, so I had to fix a lot of what came from the typesetter. I was still cutting and pasting letters doing close eye work with a knife, but focused on the spaces between. I worked with colors, gelling names. Place names, people’s names, titles, lists. Then projected slides of these very dry words in very bright colors. Nice crisp letters in color. Sometimes the slide would be off in some way, misaligned, backwards, blurry. It’s like, oops. That’s when they became something else. Projected three screens across, type was everywhere, and the letterforms were now abstract shapes. I used to paint figures. And then one day I’m just listening to music and I’m painting a figure and I painted some of the lyrics. Right across an area of the painting. That seemed to work. That seemed to work real well. From there, I looked for more ways to do that. Jasper Johns had used stencils for his alphabet pieces and I gave that a shot. I made some pieces just throwing words in there. Eventually, just letterforms. Not words, just letters on top of letters on top of letters. Layers and layers. Colors and layers. Those store-bought cardboard stencils I was using wouldn’t last for more than a few paintings, so I found a nice durable plastic and made my own that had just a hint of thickness to them. Like a sixteenth of an inch. I didn’t know it at the time, because I wasn’t using the thick materials and paint, but once those plastic sheets met up with the thicker paint materials, then I found I was able to really work the letters, to literally carve them out of paint. Now, from there, I think I turned to weaving as a working process. I wanted to expand on the rhythm of the words and I used to study fashion and textiles so I hit on weaving as a way in to explore how words could combine. A nice hard grid format, weaving words together. One line, and then next line, weaving from four directions. Some of the words would block out the other words with the gessoed canvas spaces peeking through making shapes between the letters. I was aware of Frankenthaler staining canvas and Morris Louis staining canvas, so I had a look into those materials and I started working with them, and from there I got these washes of color with letters punching through, and from that experimentation I discovered I could flood a stencil with color. Now my work involves a lot of that flooded color. I developed formulas for how best to work with this to get something, some alchemical, if you will, reaction. With that layering all kinds of surprising things happen. These shapes, these wonderful shapes. Working with a particular word I have found you get a particular shape. I collect words, jot down phrases, things overheard, things that occur to me, and take those words and make them into images. I combine these images, as I have been, with the weaving and the intersecting. And unexpectedly, these shapes show up. The way I do it, with the layering, I get so many colors, working with the transparent colors. What’s happening under it really profoundly affects the surface. And these shapes, where everything is combining and intersecting show up. Gorgeous. Making unexpected patterns. I’m really struck by the endless variety of shapes, and I’m working with the shapes, pulling them out, reproducing them, enlarging them, making them a dominant element in the painting. Maybe use a few of those, see what works. A kind of a figure-ground feel. That’s where my work is now. I exert control through some of the process. The words or the possibility of them is only a way in to the painting. I may start with specific words, and a grid with an order to it, but that’s limited. The paint does what it does. With the weaving, the flooding of color on color, letters becoming something other than just letters, the shapes created and the even larger shapes laying on top of the letterforms. I’ll make sketches of the shapes made in one word painting and use those as the foundation for the next paintings. The possibilities inherent in that connection are really exciting to me, one piece informing another and on and on.
Gregory Hein is an American painter. Born in Baltimore, he currently lives and works in the Washington D.C. Metro area. Hein earned his Bachelor's Degree in Design from the University of Maryland. His artwork has been exhibited nationally and locally at venues including Strathmore Hall, Pyramid Atlantic, Torpedo Factory, Maryland Art Place and Artscape.
Hein is known for creating vividly colored, highly textured pieces constructed from collections of words and phrases searching out the sublime, the mundane and the merely illegible. Currently he is working on pieces that focus on things we say to each other. You may run into him around Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist at the National Gallery of Art.