Saturday, 25 June 2016

Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures, Whitechapel Gallery, London (8 June-21 August 2016)

L: Crashing Wave (2011)  R: Renny's Right Geometry of a Wave (2011)

In general, I find geometric abstraction difficult to engage with.  From artists such as Mondrian and Malevich through to Riley et al, I usually am pretty much immune to the aesthetics of such paintings.  I prefer brushstrokes to be more animated and expressionistic.  It would seem though, that I am not entirely immune as I was unexpectedly surprised to be drawn to a number of Heilmman’s colourful canvases on display in this exhibition, the first major survey of the artist’s work held in the UK.

Johngiorno (1995) 

Ming (1986)

Born in 1940 in San Francisco and still very much active today, the Whitechapel describes Heilmann’s work as a playful approach to abstraction and an amalgamation of her LA beach life, 1960s counter culture and her friendships with artists, musicians and poets of the New York minimalist art scene.  Heilmann graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1962.  After studying poetry and ceramics at San Francisco State University, as well as ceramics and sculpture at University of California at Berkeley, she moved to New York where she began a career as a sculptor.  She began making paintings in the 1970s.  Her work is described as combining elements of abstraction and Conceptual Art with the bright colours, wit, and playfulness of the Pop Art.  Having just visited the Royal Academy’s annual summer and student shows, I can confirm that this is a combination which still continues to influence many art school graduates today.

L: Our Lady of the Flowers (1989)      R: Robert’s Garden (1983)


While many of Heilmann’s highly colourful canvases were too dazzling for me, I did find some pieces, such as Ming (1986), Our Lady of the Flowers (1989) and Robert’s Garden (1983), very compelling.  The standout piece for me was Johngiorno (1995).  In this painting, Heilmann’s practice of combining two or more favoured motifs here spots, stripes and webs, form a serene composition with subtle colourful highlights, rather than the usual cacophony of colour.  What also struck me about this exhibition, was how well Heilmann’s ceramic pieces displayed with the canvases, worked so well.  The addition of glazed ceramic dots to the very garish Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012), significantly increased its appeal to me.  Perhaps the positioning of such work together was a curatorial device.  If it was, it was a very clever one and much appreciated by this viewer.

L: Piano (1983) [glazed ceramic]  R: Pink Sliding Square (1978)

L: Shadow Cup 2 (1985 [glazed ceramic]   R: Black Cracky (1990)

Another observation that particular struck me about this exhibition, was how confident Heilmann’s most recent work was, and almost indistinguishable from her work from the 1980s when she was considered to be at the height of her artistic powers.  This is a rare occurrence within an artist’s oeuvre, and a refreshing discovery.  The exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery features 45 paintings as well as a selection of ceramics and works on paper.  If you want to escape the gloom of the English weather and/or political climate, a visit to see Heilmann’s colourful paintings are almost guaranteed to raise the gloomiest of spirits.
Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012)

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Louise Nevelson. Pace Gallery, London (8 June-16 July 2016)

Pace Gallery, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3ET

When an artist settles upon a muse, mode or material which sustains their work for the rest of his or her career, such inspiration, exploration (and sometime obsession) can either result in a formidable and extraordinary oeuvre which transcends the “isms” of the timeframe within which the work was produced, or become just a motif to constantly return to, re-hash and repeat in an attempt to reclaim the intensity and originality contained in work considered to represent the artist at his or her zenith.  Thankfully, Louise Nevelson’s wooden assemblages made from found objects (such as wine crates, parts of chairs and lengths of wood jutting with nails) she gathered from the streets around her New York studio from the 1950s, falls into the first scenario.

Untitled (late 1970s)
Nevelson’s most iconic installations are those which she painted black, and it is a selection of these which are displayed at the Pace Gallery.  The artist painted her sculptures to obliterate the past histories of the individual pieces which made up an assemblage and unify the work.  Black gave the work a new shadowy, Gothic character.  Nevelson believed that the black paint gave her works an air of greatness and regal enormity.  By divorcing things from their functions she lent them poetry.  A piece such as “Sky Cathedral – Moon Garden + One” (1957-1960)  was Nevelson's sculptural answer to the Abstract Expressionist canvases of the predominantly male artists that commanded the attention of American art during the 1950s.  Nevelson was interested in the sublime and spiritual transcendence. Sky Cathedral, like many of her wall pieces, evokes the sense of a shrine or a place of devotion. The artist wrote that in her art, she sought “the in-between places, the dawns and dusk, the objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and the sea.”((John Gordon, Louise Nevelson (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967),12)
(Left) Sky Cathedral - Moon Garden + One (1957-1960)
(Right) Maquette for Dawn Shadows (1976-1983)

The sculptures in this exhibition range from small assemblages to free-standing columns and monumental wall-based works.  I found all of them so exquisite, so carefully considered that to see them together as a group for the first time was a delight and demonstrated how much visceral impact can be made when artist, intent and material synergise.  Scrutinising the work up close was just as satisfying and I wished I had taken a sketchbook with me, as I could have been occupied for hours reproducing small areas of interest from the pieces.

Detail from Untitled (late 1970s)

Perhaps it was a curatorial intent to link Nevelson’s darkly metaphysical and contemplative work to colour field painting as the darkly painted gallery walls brought to mind the Rothko room at Tate Modern.  The exhibition does offers a wonderful respite to the usual Mayfair hubbub happening outside and if fact, is far more peaceful than the Rothko room which is usually crammed with tourists taking selfies.  I would highly recommend a visit to this quietly beautiful exhibition, which runs until 16 July.  Textbook reproductions of Nevelson’s work simply cannot compete with experiencing her work in such close proximity.

(Left) Cascades-Perpendiculars II (Night Music) (1980-82)
(Right) Untitled (1973)

Moon-Star Zag XII (1981)