Work Hard (Feel Great), 2015; Albuterol cartridges, clay, tubing, Gatorade, hardware; variable spacing.
With a background in architecture, it’s no surprise that Brooklyn-based artist Alexander Heffesse works so well with space. Heffesse engages with installation as a construction site, his point of departure being the idea of the construction worker as an artisan figure engaged in the act of creating. Noticing the proliferation of empty Gatorade bottles at construction sites, Heffesse drew a connection between social economics and the chemical makeup of the popular energy drink, which lead him to explore topics such as sanitation, synthetics, and the simulation of nature. The convergence of these issues can be seen in the artist’s composite installations.
Beyond the impact Cloud Rap has had on the public consciousness, the artists consider the genre’s interplay with internet subcultures and meme culture, mainstream RnB music, 90s Punk and 4th wave Emo. They examine its roots within niche internet microgenres such as Vaporwave and Witch House.
As well as a popular energy drink for construction workers, Gatorade is also a prominent advertising giant in the world of athletics. And while athletes may be seen consuming Gatorade for branding purposes, for construction workers it is less a luxury than a way to energize within their means. Heffesse initially began looking into the FDA’s regulations on color additives. Extracted from petroleum, the dyes found in food coloring are used to enhance the appearance of a food item and increase its marketability and sales; particular food colorings such as Blues 1 and 10, which Gatorade uses to create the stark blue Blueberry Pomegranate flavor, are said to cause allergic reactions in people who have asthma. Heffesse references these findings in Work Hard (Feel Great) (2015), a minimalist installation showcasing a series of Albuterol cartridges typically used by asthma patients, filled with various Gatorade flavors. The vibrant colors of the energy drink are an uncomfortable reminder of the chemicals that go into manufacturing.
Rather than work in set configurations, Heffesse creates objects that he then pieces together into compositions. As a result, certain visual elements can be seen in multiple installations, for example, the banana painted in a green-to-yellow gradient that references stages of ripeness. This motif can be seen in what Heffesse describes as a “banana shrine,” set against a series of engineered wood boards that the artist painted as a natural landscape of wheat fields and blue skies; positioned on a series of sponges painted the hues of blue food coloring, the banana symbolizes nature. Fruit becomes a statement of the natural ideal.
There are a number of tongue-in-cheek gestures in this installation. The backdrop is a representation of synthetic material manipulated to depict natural scenery; the pedestal in the “banana shrine” is made out of four wall studs glued together to create the stand, an expression of the synthetic manifesting into the luxurious. In a circuitous gesture tied to the notion of the installation as a construction site, Heffesse’s use of sponges is a nod to the maintenance of buildings after completion. “If the builder is the artisan, the custodian is the conservator,” Heffesse notes on his website, alluding to the notion of inverted social roles and the economics at play.
Much of Heffesse’s work revolves around material shifts and perception. In Sanitary Wipe (Large) (2016), Heffesse highlights the sanitary qualifications of both paper towel and Corian solid surface (a material typically used for countertops), both primarily associated with cleaning and maintenance. By creating the hard object in the image of the softer paper towel, Heffesse wanted to simultaneously “mutilate but reference” paper towel as the less durable material. There is a question of functionality as well; while the solid surface cylinder might last a lot longer than the towel roll, it is not functional. In this there is an irony, another reversal of roles that blurs the line between the real and the fake. Tampering with the perception of the onlooker, Heffesse’s work is a multifaceted exploration of the synthetic emulating aspects of the real in a bid for legitimacy.