Heterotopia - A Paper Trail to Foucault


There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places .…. which
are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.

Michel Foucault. Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias.
Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec.


I am not a premeditative painter. During the last ten years, most if not all of my paintings started with a white canvas on the floor being mercilessly, deliberately defiled. Yet as I write this, I am concluding a body of work in which there has been very little room for accident. My approach has been delicate and calculated. Far from the days of destroying months of work in one whimsical splash from a bucket of white acrylic, these paintings evolved from strategy during afternoons spent with my nose up against oil paint, the last signs of life squeezed desperately from a select few favored brushes.

I was relieved to be freed from the rollercoaster of abstraction and even took comfort in being able to predict where the painting would be by the end of the day. Never the less, a part of me still longed for the thrill of surprise, that moment of ecstasy when a mess of a painting, like a ship lost at sea, begins to find its way. This act of wandering, which had once taken so much paint, took place on paper.

I began by, reproducing certain gestures and shapes from earlier paintings on individual pieces of paper, extracting what I saw as a personal symbolism from my earlier work. By rearranging them into compositions on the studio wall, I reentered my own artwork from an entirely new perspective. The trail forged by the last decade could now be explored.

At the same time, I began to look for ways to conceptualize this new direction. Where could it go? I could envision many directions, none of them parallel to each other, nor in opposition. Each new painting began as a departure from the first, but never the less connected to it. Inspired by science writer Margaret Wertheim’s beautifully crochet (hyperbolic) coral reefs I began to imagine myself working in a form of hyperbolic space, an infinite realm between any number of ideas stemming from that initial piece of spray-painted paper hung on a studio wall.

As these pieces of paper (notebook pages, really) worked their way into to new painting, so too did other pieces of my physical environment. The world inside my studio began to turn up on canvas. Painted with a degree of fidelity, a piece of paper is accepted as a representation of paper, a paint can, as a paint can. But in this series, the convention didn’t seem to hold. As I began the process of reflecting my outside world, it turned upsidedown, became framed inside the edges of the canvas. I began to realize these paintings have more in common with each other than with any physical place I have ever been. As my metaphorical ship came to shore, I found myself landing in my own heterotopia.

The realities falsely reflected onto these canvases are heterotopias of illusion. Function layered on dysfunction they reshape this incompatibility and offer a new reading of the represented place. I see this painted heterotopia being played out in two ways. First, formally, by manipulating the composition of elements in the paintings, the usual assumptions about foreground and background are broken down. The result is an opportunity to simultaneously represent an illusionary depth to a painting and expose the flatness of the canvas by applying thick paint that literally sits raised off the surface.

Secondly, as mentioned, these pieces use representations of recognizable objects and locations (sheets of paper, artwork and other materials found in a studio) to build narratives. However, in the context of these new narratives, the original function of the objects represented is redirected. A piece of paper held by tape takes on an anthropomorphic presence. The spaces meant to read as walls begin to dislodge, acting as doorways breaking depth of field, or symbolizing the sails of a ship.

Making these paintings, I was surprised by the seemingly endless ways heterotopic spaces can be played out through their narratives. But as quickly as the paper trail led me to Foucault, Foucault brings me right back into the studio, into every studio, into the heterotopia that is the physical studio. Just as Foucault found heterotopic spaces in our gardens, churches and museums, so too is the artist’s studio a marginal space where incompatible realities are played out.

Here, the most absurd ideas are elevated while practical (responsible) considerations are left only superficially considered. Under exposed pipes and inadequate light, a self-indulgent theatre is played out, a heterotopia blossoms. In these hidden think tanks, an artistic exercise meant to reflect something true or philosophical about the world outside its doors runs amuck. Tangents of association mix with struggle and play. The result is discovery, and need not be more.

In studio spaces, we create a place outside the every day, a counter-site to use Foucault’s terms, in which we can reflect our experience of being, and turn it upside-down.

After all, it is with the mind that we see rather than with the eye. Is a pipe ever a pipe?