The dude paints houses. Not in the typical way, and not just houses. Danny Heller makes paintings of the Southern California landscape and the buildings that signify Southern California.
Are you familiar with that flash of light and heat you feel when you step out of an air-conditioned building and into the midday sun? That's the feel of Heller's paintings of midcentury architecture: stark, bright, with heat radiating off concrete corners and into a blue sky.
But don't let that superficial lightness fool you, because Heller's bright colors mask a sadness -- the bittersweet love for a bygone day. The fact is that these houses represent a dream of the future that never came to pass. Fifty and sixty years after people designed homes with lofty notions of future generations enjoying natural, open, simplified living spaces, we have what -- McMansions? The same little boxes that the minds behind midcentury modernist architecture sought to move beyond?
You have to wonder, then, what could prompt a 30-year-old artist to specialize in an era that passed decades before he was born. "My favorite part of Disneyland was Tomorrowland because it was the 1960s idea of what the future would look like," Heller began his explanation. "It was like a time capsule."
He readily admits that ten years ago, he wouldn't have known exactly what a midcentury modern home looked like, but a class he took at UC Santa Barbara opened his eyes to an aesthetic that he, as a kid who grew up in Northridge and Chatsworth, had always known but never truly noticed. Once he did, the appeal of these homes -- particularly those situated in sun-baked areas like Palm Springs -- seemed obvious. "Just as far as overall quality of life, to pull up in the driveway and see something so dynamic as this, it would put a smile on your face," he said, a little swoony. "Just maximizing space and all that. ... I like to think of myself as a guy who doesn't waste a lot, and I like how the homes are stripped down to the essentials but are still aesthetically pleasing."
But he also acknowledges that not everyone can see the appeal, even in spite of the recent, "Mad Men"-ushered appreciation for all things 1960s. To the uninitiated, the midcentury modern homes could look dated, spartan or even severe. "If you're talking about an old Victorian home, with the fancy woodwork, it's easy to see how much work went into it and why it's historic. With modernism, it's not as easy to see [the appeal]," he said.
Of course, Heller wasn't alone in noticing these homes as being iconic instead of dated. Around the same time that his interest in midcentury architecture was sparked, others began developing an appreciation for the pseudo-futuristic look. And while some adherents have surely been championing the style ever since its heyday, they've been finding converts in the last decade. Case in point: It was only in 2001 that Palm Springs started its Modernism Show and in 2006 its Modernism Week.
Heller makes the drive to Palm Springs often. For him, driving through the midcentury mecca is a hunt for the right house, from the right angle. He snaps a photo -- "I don't like working off other people's photos because I prefer to get a sense of place" -- and then he paints back in L.A. However, it's not always a case of him snooping and snapping. Heller has gradually met the people who own, live in and rent out these classic homes -- all of them the types who can and will talk breathlessly about this architectural style.
One who proved particularly helpful in Heller's career is Chris Menrad, president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee and a man that Heller calls "the unofficial mayor of Palm Springs." Menrad explained that he loves how Heller's style approaches photorealism -- "Everyone thinks it's a photograph until they look closely and see it's a painting," he says of the Heller he bought -- but he's routinely surprised when 20- and 30-somethings express an interest in modernism. Yet when tours move through his restored gem of a home, young people tell him it's their dream house." Menrad's response: "Why? You weren't even around! I was barely around!"
Whatever the motivation, Menrad hopes Heller represents the first of many young artists who embrace the midcentury modernist aesthetic. "I hope it's not a trend or a fad," he said. "But maybe the question is this: 'Is there really anything great that's been done since?'"
When I visited Heller's Silver Lake studio, his current project marked quite a departure from his more typical work: It was a painting of "Metropolis II," the Chris Burden installation currently up at LACMA, which Heller made for a show at Culver City's George Billis Gallery. Heller doesn't strictly paint houses -- he did one of the "Play Me, I'm Yours" pianos, for example, and his painting of the Chatsworth outskirts appears in Metro buses and trains in celebration of Orange Line's extension further into the valley. But he's known for houses. "Hopefully people will still see my style," Heller said of the Metropolis II piece. And then immediately after, he pointed out that Burden's creation included a tower built out of cards bearing the Eames starburst, a modernist logo if there ever was one. The influence of modernism, it seemed, was hard to escape even if its heyday passed half a century ago.
That fact proved even truer when we took a hike around Heller's neighborhood, looking at the sterling examples of midcentury modern architecture that Silver Lake has to offer. "It's a lot of efficiency, simplicity," Heller explained on the sidewalk in front of the Neutra House, where outside flows into inside almost seamlessly. "Letting natural light so it cuts down the cost of electricity, xeriscaped gardens filled with drought-tolerant stuff."
That's when I noticed that Heller could also have been talking about the other homes in the area -- Craftsmen-style "hipster flips" and other homes that lacked the architectural pedigree that his Palm Springs subjects had but which nonetheless echoed the underlying ideas. There are the "dry" gardens. There is natural light. Walls inside were removed to let open space flow over hardwood floors. The houses don't look like the ones Heller paints -- I mean, there's a reason Heller still drives to Palm Springs -- but we didn't lose the ideas on which this forgone future was constructed. They've lingered and even resurged with a sort of person eager to connect with the past, with nature, with a mindset that can be hopeful about the future.
"With homes being as expensive as they are, a lot of people are doing more with less," Heller said, compressing time in a way that would have made modernists happy. "You'll read about people with these tiny plots, and they're doing these amazing things using big windows or whatever to make sure it's the most they can do with what they have."
This in mind, it's maybe less surprising that more people would be noticing the midcentury modern aesthetic that Heller captures in his paintings: He's not just painting what used to be. He's painting now.
Heller will be showing new work at the George Billis Gallery beginning November 17.
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