You can lose your mind in Amani Heywood’s art. The Bronx-born abstract expressionist paints vast, large-scale projects I’d characterize as labyrinths, at once serene and chaotic. The works often feature vibrant color palettes of blacks, blues, blood reds, and deep greens, inspired by Heywood’s Trinidadian family and a desire to familiarize the audience with his heritage.
His canvases can span five by six feet in size, and bear hundreds of layers of paint, making the broad strokes look thick and forever wet. Heywood compares the thickness of the paint layers to the thickness of his would-be therapy file—if he went, of course. “My art is therapy to me,” he tells W. “This is all me talking to myself while I’m doing physical activity.” It’s clear his work is the product of an intense physicality, all of which is defined by techniques like pouring, dripping, throwing, and spraying on the canvas—a cacophony of elements that, with Heywood’s vision, result in harmony and control.
“I use my whole body when I paint,” Heywood says. At over six feet tall, he has a “crazy range of motion,” spreading out everywhere when working like a mad scientist. “I get on my hands and knees. I jump to the ceiling. I reach for opposite walls,” he says. All of this physical involvement is to make what he calls “his mark,” on the piece; it’s his signature style. When visiting his Brooklyn home-studio, evidence of his process is everywhere. In one corner sits what is clearly a painter’s workspace. A cornucopia of brushes populate the tables, paint-freckled tarps cover the floor, leftover acrylic streaks tattoo the wall. It’s a landlord’s nightmare, but an artist’s haven.
Amid all the enormity there is precision in Heywood’s paintings. Either hidden beneath the layers or with a quiet prominence are what he calls his “swirls,” created using buttery oil pastels or spray paint. These swirls, which look a bit like cursive language, swim on the canvas, both uniform and in motion. The waxy ribbons are a nod to Heywood’s dyslexia. “Letters moving through space are very hard for me,” he says. “The swirls that you see, that’s me writing,” or what it feels like to write. He wants the swirls to inspire curiosity, and some exist as stand-ins for the words in his painting titles.
Taking cues from other abstract artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, Heywood wants these paintings to act as a “meditative release,” primarily one that mimics the practice of lighting a candle, focusing your energy on the dancing flame, and letting your mind roam free. “I want to allow that same feeling of wandering through my pieces, using the titles and descriptions as prompts for meditative thought or reasoning.” Like Rothko, he also prefers the paintings hung low to the ground so you feel like you’re “being transported” or “standing at a portal.”
Heywood is inspired by his contemporaries, too, most notably his co-workers at the Lower East Side artist collective space LAAMS. “Working there allows me to connect with people that help me express myself. I never go hungry there creatively,” he says, citing fellow LAAMS peers like clothing designer Robo Dante. Among the artists there’s a competitive edge of “who can keep going the longest,” who can execute their practice even on days they feel unmotivated. “We bully each other into continuing to work,” jokes Heywood. “As artists, we all want to connect, to not feel alone. My friends and I are finding these communities through our art.”
LAAMS is often the setting for Heywood’s various exhibitions, too. His first was a showcase of four pieces he created at his old apartment: “I Did This Shit In My Room.” “I named it that because I wanted people to know you don’t need a fancy studio. Just do the work,” he says. The exhibition included the swirl-heavy Make A Name For Yourself and Spray It All Over Town, an introspection on self-promotion, as well as Late Nights in My Room Using Again, a play on Heywood’s constant emission of spray paint fumes (a practice his old roommate hated).
Heywood also held a LAAMS exhibition called Paradise Painters, featuring another four of his larger works. One of the pieces, Perception, is an ode to artist Barnett Newman, using a solid line to separate paradoxes and create two works that come together as one. The exhibition also featured painters pants designed by Heywood, a callback to his first-love art form, fashion. Of the exhibition title, Heywood declares: “I’m not just painting. I’m painting my idea of paradise.”
Heywood is currently working on an art book to be published in 2023 that catalogs 50 of his large canvas and small-scale paintings. The book will also feature work progression photos as well as interviews with Heywood and other artists. As always, you can find more of his art at LAAMS in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, indefinitely.
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