Peter Heij, Figures and Skyscapes

By Dr. David Bos, June 2000
Translated from Dutch by David Michael Haley, April 2007

Peter Heij (Utrecht, Netherlands, 1960) trained at the Royal Academy for Art and Design (akv|St Joost) in
‘s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch). He has lived and has worked most of his career in the heart of Amsterdam.
After working for a considerable time in the abstract, Peter Heij turned, in 1991, to realism – a style that makes high demands on the craftsmanship and creative drive of the painter. In this vein, he has meanwhile built a considerable body of work.
What unifies his work is not immediately apparent. The works do not hold to a single idea, method, or subject. A viewer who examines these paintings closely can, however, recognize the artist’s touch, the signature style that Peter Heij has developed. His rich, controlled palette imbues his subjects with a sensual glow and depth.
A further trademark of the works is the artist’s use of abstract forms that underscore his vision, exemplifying an uplifting and alienation of the everyday world. Bearing these ideas in mind, he painted a series of paradisiacal landscapes, seen through hard-edged forms (1996). These hard edges keeps the viewer at a distance, reminding him that the entrance into paradise is forever barred against him. That the object of desire is unreachable becomes more poignant because it is seen through gaps in a shutter (1994). Such a limited viewpoint forces introspection. In many of Peter Heij’s works that which is invisible, out-of-frame draws the eye.
In the silhouettes he has painted since 1997, Peter Heij has turned the difficult relationship between inner being and the outer world inside out. Against a white background, he shows human forms “filled” with images of their everyday environment. Portrayed thus, the person appears to be nothing more than a shadow or a perspective – a “peek” at the wide world. Is it far-fetched to see therein the Buddhistic release from suffering:  the detachment of the person from his surroundings?
In many of his works Peter Heij displays his intrigue with the cultures and religions of Southeast Asia. The things that captivate him about religion are not particularly the dogmas, rules, and temple complexes, but the small, tender gestures with which people reach for a different reality. Again and again his eye is drawn to offerings and improvised altars: the commonplace as holy, and sometimes (as in Monk 2) literally overgrown with vegetation and surrounded by everyday articles.
These offhand gestures differ vastly from the religious attitude Peter Heij exposes in Looking for God:  on an ordinary dyke, under a classic Dutch sky, stands a row of ordinary men who have no interest for each other or what lies in the distance. They just stand, staring into space. Do these naïve “god-seekers” not know that God was created out of thin air? Why do they keep searching for God, literally, above?
In latest work, however, the painter casts his glance from the ground and renders what he sees above. In contrast to the small formats of these works, he presents moments in time from the eternal, worldwide ballet of light, air, and moisture. Restless, in vague forms waft clouds through the sky’s monochrome.
The choices of subject are not outlandish, but they are, nonetheless, daring. In painting – certainly in Dutch landscape painting – the sky has, since olden times, played a submissive, decorative role, just one element in an image. Making the sky the subject, itself, giving it the entire painting surface, challenges the avant-garde ideal that there must be a separation between “illustrative” works and “art” works.
“Skysights” was an obvious name for these dainty images, but Peter Heij calls them “Skyscapes”.  This name emphasizes that, like the creation of land from sea in Holland by the Dutch, something is created here, it is cultivated by the hand of man. And, indeed, while the painter, from a technical standpoint, works in a strict realistic manner, he also abstracts the subject – not by adding “strange” or “unnatural” elements, but omitting everything else. Since there is no land in sight, no living soul, not even a heavenly body, the viewer loses all reference points. The scale and orientation of the image hang in the air. Only the sunbeams, the composition of the clouds, and the form of the canvas gives an indication. The sky is divorced from the earth, loose from the ground, endless, immeasurable, absolute.
The atmosphere is global, the most universal location on earth. Peter Heij stresses, as well, the singular character of his “Skyscapes”. Each of them defines itself through a particular place, occurrence, or person. The sky is not a “no-man’s land”. On the contrary, it is part of everyday life – no more the seat of the gods or a purgatory of the dead, but the unending vista of every mortal.