Jay Heikes

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Courtesy of Highpoint Center for Printmaking. © Highpoint Center for Printmaking
Born 1975, Princeton, New Jersey

Jay Heikes remembers his father coming home from his job as a chemist at the medical products company Squibb with his forearm purple and swollen to twice its size. Whatever lab incident had caused it, the sight got Heikes wondering about the idea of physical transformation. Every bit the chemist’s son, today he sculpts with elements from the periodic table (niobium, bismuth) and combines materials that aren’t supposed to go together, such as iron and bronze, cheesecloth and taconite, silk and concrete. Mixing metallic pigment with collagen from dead animals produced the ethereal Molting (2010). Some pieces, wrote New York Times critic Ken Johnson, “resemble objects unearthed by archaeologists.”1 Heikes likens his process to alchemy, the medieval belief that one substance could be transformed into another, such as iron into gold. He sees in alchemy the same kind of absurdist humor he has always loved in the plays of the twentieth-century European authors Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus. He calls himself a permanent amateur, a jester, oblivious to where the dead ends may lie.2

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Jay Heikes (right), with Highpoint Editions printer Megan Anderson. Courtesy of Highpoint Center for Printmaking. © Highpoint Center for Printmaking

Concerned that we’re no longer “listening” to materials, Heikes obsessively researches their histories. In preparation for a show inspired by Marie Curie, who discovered radium, he lined his studio in phosphorescent strontium aluminate so it glowed like Curie’s lab coat apparently did. Enchanted by the brown shade of asphaltum, which he saw at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles as a child, he used the caustic, smelly substance to ink his 2015 Highpoint series “Niet voor Kinderen” (“Not for Children”) (cat. nos. 151-155) . The monoprints consist of found elements—burlap, horsehair, blades of grass, metal washers, a tree root—that Heikes arranged in the shape of corpses on photosensitive paper. He made cyanotypes with the sun as a light source, then turned these into printing screens. In the late 2010s, he began his series of cloud paintings , each one titled Mother Sky. The voluminous shapes owe their mystery in part to a chemical reaction—a mixture of vinegar, salt, and powdered pigment that Heikes used to stain the canvas.

Heikes grew up in East Windsor, New Jersey. While his father researched medications, his mother taught in the local high school. He earned a BA in art (1998) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an MFA in sculpture (2005) from the Yale University School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut. He first arrived in Minneapolis in 1999 because his wife, the photographer and entrepreneur Jen Murphy, was attending art school there. In addition to such group shows as “Painter Painter” (2013) at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Whitney Biennial (2006), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Heikes has had solo shows at, among others, the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (2019); Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, California (2018); Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam (2015–16); Reserve Ames, Los Angeles (2015); Aspen Art Museum, Colorado (2012); and Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (2007). Heikes has received a Chinati Foundation residency, Marfa, Texas (2017), and Bush Foundation Fellowship (2008). He lives in the Twin Cities.

—Marla J. Kinney


  1. Ken Johnson, “I Talk with the Spirits,” Art in Review, New York Times, July 8, 2016, New York edition, section C, p. 18, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/arts/design/art-galleries-nyc.html. ↩︎

  2. Jay Heikes, phone conversations with the author, September 2020. ↩︎