Paint, metaphor, and math combine in Ellen Heck show at Wally Workman Gallery

With her current series, Heck continues her artistic commentary on a well-known 19th-century painting


At Wally Workman Gallery, Ellen Heck’s “Cornucopia” features sensuous, colorful and yet enigmatic paintings. Many feature a girl hidden — sometimes completely, sometimes not — behind a large, strangely shaped vase filled with flowers.

With these works, Heck continues her commentary on the late-19th century painting “The Broken Pitcher” by William Adolphe Bouguereau, which famously shows a girl at a well with a broken pitcher at her feet.

A popular interpretation of Bouguereau’s painting is that the broken pitcher is a metaphor for the young girl. The pitcher’s brokenness represents her loss of virginity — or possibly sexual assault — Heck said.

“Which is pretty sad, right? Especially when you pair it with the age of the girl.” But a lot of people love this painting, “including myself,” she says, chatting by phone recently.

Originally from Austin but now based in North Carolina, Heck has shown at Wally Workman Gallery for several years.

“Part of the reason I started this project was that I wanted to unpack that a little bit to see why do I love Bouguereau’s painting. Do I feel okay about loving this painting? As the project developed, I started asking ‘What could I change in this painting and still like it?’”

Ellen Heck
At left, William Adolphe Bouguereau’s “The Broken Pitcher” (1891), and, at right, one of Ellen Heck’s contemporary takes on Bouguereau “At the Coast with a Nautilus” (2021). (Bouguereau image courtesy Wikipedia Commons; Heck image courtesy Wally Workman Gallery).

Most of the paintings in ‘Cornucopia’ are explorations of different versions of the Bouguereau painting.

“I was just looking at that metaphor and then thinking about vessels, and just metaphor in general,” Heck says. “And that process led me to both thinking about metaphor and looking at other forms that were vessel-like but had different properties.”

Unlike the Bouguereau painting, in Heck’s versions the girl is not a;ways next to the vessel, but rather behind it. So “instead of having the figure next to the objects, the vessel-like object, now the figure has been replaced by that object and it’s a new object,” she says.

What kind of object, though?

In recent years, Heck said she has developed a fascination with mathematical forms, things that are “maybe more interesting or abstract — just things that don’t exist in the real world but we can make these models of them in math.”

In previous works, she has used a Möbius strip — a figure that looks like a ribbon with only one edge. She has also depicted the mathematical shape called a Klein bottle, which is included in some the works in this show.

In her Bouguereau-inspired paintings, however, the vases are made from Julia sets, another type of mathematical function.

“But you don’t necessarily have to know that right off the bat,” Heck points out. “It’s just this interesting form that’s both abstract and also looks like a vase at the same time.

Ellen Heck
Ellen Heck, “Julia Vase – Pearl,” 2021, oil on panel, 53 x 33 inches. Courtesy Wally Workman Gallery

“You get these new shapes in math [that] you were really familiar with in other contexts. Like this is how a nautilus [a type of seashell] gets made, where you start in the center and then you spiral out one segment, one segment.

“I really love these growth forms because they make these beautiful natural shapes that we can recognize in the natural world but also that really aren’t exactly in the world.”

One of her paintings pictures a girl at the well with a nautilus, rather than a vase.

Heck says she also enjoys the definitions of the mathematical forms.

“Because I’m not a mathematician, when I hear them they sound like poetry almost. So the definition of a Klein bottle is ‘a non-oriented surface with no boundary.’ And I just loved that because there’s lots of potential there,” she said.

Heck notes that same could be said of painting. “A painting is a surface. And then depending on how you put the paint on that surface, you can change the orientation and you can add the illusion of space and depth so that there is no boundary.”

Heck is primarily a printmaker. She switched to painting for the current show because “I try to use a medium that makes sense,” she explains.

However, some of the paintings in the show are done on top of her own prints.

“Since I was doing the same composition over and over and over, it was really nice to be able to draw it on a plate and then print that many times,” she says “And as certain elements are changing in the image, then I would just hand draw those areas.”

“I guess I switched to painting because this particular project was looking so closely at that Bouguereau painting.”

“Cornucopia’” is on view at Wally Workman Gallery through Nov. 27,

Rebecca Johnson
Rebecca Johnson
Rebecca Johnson is an Austin-based arts writer and owner of Arts Articulated, LLC.

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