September - October 2007
Leah Oates: Please explain your work.
Heidi Cody: I needle consumer culture by lifting and subverting design elements from product packaging and corporate logos. So far it’s been signs, sculpture, painting, prints and drawing. My work shows how visual information is transmitted from corporation to consumer, and how it makes recognition a conscious act on the part of the viewer.
LO: When did you know you were an artist, and what is your background?
HC: I had a great college drawing teacher, Phyllis McGibbon, who taught me how to do photorealistic drawings. I killed this one drawing, and saw I could create the suspension of disbelief through drawing. That’s all she wrote; I knew I wanted to be an artist. I also lived in France until I was eight, and my belated introduction to American consumerism was like, Pow! Look at all this candy! Also, my father refused to buy a color TV because he thought it would distort my idea of reality. Word. I didn’t understand, but now I think having a 13” black and white TV for ten years made everything else more colorful to me. There’s a lot of commercial information that I zoom in on that others just don’t see. It’s like I have bionic Pop vision.
LO: You work with pop culture, and your work is both humorous and quite serious at once. Can you explain your reasoning behind this?
HC: Consumer culture is based on looks, but is really dumb. It’s an easy target. When I place pieces of national brands in quasi-abstract contexts, they look fun and goofy, but they still cue recognition. I use the strengths of the original design—pizzazz, color, etc.—to my advantage. There’s research underlying my work, and it comes from a critical place, but viewers usually get that as a delayed after-effect. I use the product’s original allure as a hook. Then, the meaning pokes ‘em right in the eyes.
My funniest work happens when I push an idea into absurdity. A new series of drawings, “Eskimo Pie Eskimo’s Obscure Mountain Tour,” features an Eskimo visiting grocery product landscapes that feature snow capped mountains like those of the Alps as pictured in Swiss Miss cocoa boxes or the Sierra Nevada mountain range pictured on the side of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale bottles. The point is, he’s an Eskimo; he’s interested in snow. In touring, the Eskimo is reporting on an imaginary parallel universe that exists in the product world. In my “Audubon Series,” spray bottles replace the bird bodies in pseudo-natural compositions based on J.J. Audubon’s original work. This series addresses the idea of product evolution mimicking natural selection by conflating the two.
LO: What do you define as “popular culture”? In your work, are you influenced by an immersion in popular culture, or do you have a more removed view?
HC: American popular culture is a necessary by-product of our economy. Its sweep is vast and its influences profound, but to a huge degree its effects are not consciously recognized. There are just too many commercials, signs, ads and other forms of marketing crap to absorb consciously. I think consumer culture becomes gibberish that people think they can ignore, but never can entirely. Marketing works better than a lot of people think it does; it has to, to be so pervasive. I am a regular consumer, immersed in popular culture, no question. I still do a lot of research in grocery stores. And I work as a freelance designer, usually at magazines, so I have a limited role in producing regular consumer culture, too.
LO: With your work it seems that the media is very important to the message. How do you select a medium and what is the process you do through to conceive a body of work?
HC: I try to follow the architectural principle that form follows function. I want the most effective way to present each idea, and my media and presentation vary. Signs are my favorite, because they are co-opted corporate communication, and have a built-in conceptual reference to signs as symbols. I also love shiny corporate slickness, so I use a lot of plastic. In some cases an idea can’t be realized in media I already use, though, so I’ll learn something new. In “Eskimo Pie Eskimo’s Obscure Mountain Tour,” the trademark landscapes I’m using for his journeys are obscured by the product names. Like in Poland Springs water, the Poland Springs logo hides a lot of trees and half the water. The visual erasing and cloning required to fix this on a computer is impossible, so I’m drawing it instead.
LO: Please speak about your various series and how they connect into a whole. Do you think this is even important to think about?
HC: The series result from an array of strategies I use to investigate different aspects of popular culture. Flat graphic abstraction of logos and letters, like American Alphabet and Fast Pitch, is an analysis of how ingrained corporate logos and grocery product typefaces are. The “Audubon” series addresses absurd parallels between natural selection and brand competition. The “American Haiku” series points out preposterous attempts of manufactured groceries to espouse idyllic natural references, like Sunlight, Dawn, and Sno-Caps. And the “Eskimo Pie Eskimo” series describes a hyper-idealized natural world that exists in product landscapes. It’s all part of one large project: a huge, art-based documentation and analysis of consumer culture.
LO: You are selling some works on eBay. I think this makes perfect sense for your work, which comments on popular culture and consumerism. What are your thoughts on this and how has the experience been?
HC: Please let me clarify: I sold six rolls of ADS ON TP, printed toilet paper with ads on it, on eBay several years ago. The first two rolls fetched $50, the second two, about $25, and the last two, $15. Do you see a pattern? I did! The sale prices were in direct proportion to how many people on my mailing list were still paying attention. Rather than perpetually bother my fans with toilet paper auctions, I decided to cut my losses. It’s good to know that eBay is best when I market the auction. And I think the novelty factor is important. I may use eBay again, but it’ll be for something different. There has been one arguably negative side effect to my eBay usage, though. I now have a burgeoning cowboy boot collection.
LO: Who are your favorite artists and why?
HC: The documentarian Errol Morris for his ability to make reality the best story, Takashi Murakami and Darren Almond for their production values and Laurie Anderson for being who she is and being out there. I don’t know if these stories are true, but I heard she was a student at my grad school, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and did a performance where she wore ice blocks frozen to her shoes and played a violin as she walked around the museum. I hope it’s true. I also heard she dropped out of school, but that’s something the very smartest people do.
LO: What advice would you give to emerging artists who are new to New York City?
HC: Look out for Number One: that’s you. Be at least somewhat selective in where you exhibit. It also pays to do some extra legwork, talk to other artists, and make sure you can trust whomever you work with. Don’t learn that the hard way. But the main thing is, be confident and believe in your work.
LO: What projects are you working on in studio currently and what upcoming shows are coming up for us to see your work?
HC: My latest challenge is grocery “spokescritters,” mascots like Charlie Tuna and all his friends. I am exploring these characters and the parallel universe they live in. This work varies from sculptural, lit signs with customized circuit boards to the “Eskimo Pie Eskimo” series, to a suite of spokescritter hat sculptures. The rest will be paintings and sculptures. The best place to see my work is at www.heidicody.com, or in my studio in Brooklyn. I’m having my best sales year ever and I was in the Moscow Biennial earlier this year, so I’m happy. I don’t have any big shows scheduled right now. I’m just focusing on making new work and having fun with it.