Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016

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Mary Heilmann, Cup Drawing, 1983, Oil on ceramic, 30.48 x 48.90 x 4.45 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Lucio Fontana thought of ceramic as the most aristocratic of sculptural materials. And it is likely that at about the time he began to work with ceramics at the Manufattura Mazzotti in the 1930s, the medium was still held in some degree of reverence for the delicate craft it often demanded. Fontana was one of the first of several modern artists to appropriate ceramics as part of their wider body of work, to stand alongside paintings even. In turning their attentions to it however, they also tended to drift far from the aristocratic.

Mary Heilmann has also built up a body of work which incorporates ceramics and painting, but one in which the presumed appropriation of the traditionally ‘craft’ medium belies a more intimate relation between the two components in the artist’s work. Heilmann studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley from 1963 to 1967, before moving to New York in 1968, where she took up painting. It is easy to see ceramics as an adjunct to the artist’s painting, especially given the scale of some of the early paintings we encounter as we walk into the first room of the Whitechapel Gallery. But it would be negligent to assume that this formative period spent working with such a raw and pliable medium did not have a sustained influence on Heilmann’s painting.

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Mary Heilmann, The Thief of Baghdad, 1983, Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 106.68 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The exhibition opens with some canvasses in which the impact of the male-dominated New York painting scene is tangible. There are some large and loose colour field works which seem to riff off the experiments of Joseph Albers or Mark Rothko. While the scale is substantial and the effect from a distance is one of a solid, carefully built up surface, these paintings are surprisingly unkempt. The slightly wobbling edge of an area of painted surface indicates hurried execution, as do the splashes and drips which enliven the chunky sides of the canvas. There are experiments with the square; often blocked in with thick satin interlocking strips of black acrylic over candy striped washes which bleed into each other like distinct river currents. These are nominally investigations into the kind of optics which occupied Albers over the course of a lifetime. With the newly arrived Heilmann however, we see a bold and almost irreverent hunger to work through what was current or recent in American painting. Continue reading “Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016”

Ryan Sullivan @ Sadie Coles HQ, Davies St. London, April 26 – June 04, 2016.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In the late 1990s, in the painting department of the art college I was studying at in Dublin, there was a small group of painters for whom a kind of process painting was the most logical way forward. It was a time when we were being urged from some corners to abandon painting altogether, at least temporarily, and to ‘interrogate’ our preconceptions or to ‘collapse’ our assumptions of what painting could do. It was the language of wartime and it made the task of thinking about art and reflecting on one’s work sound more like a national emergency. To throw ourselves into the unselfconscious application of the medium allowed us to switch off from the agony of second guessing.  

One way of looking at process art tells us that chance results, obtained through the application of a medium within a set of pre-decided material and procedural parameters, are themselves the aims of the artwork. The medium, and the way it responds to a variety of physical, temporal and chemical stages of intervention, is the message. On paper this definition of process in painting reads just like any kind of painting one cares to imagine. In the Renaissance workshop there were arguably far more complex processes being carried out at every stage of an artwork’s production than can be seen in the contemporary artists’ pouring from a pot or squeezing from a tube. So it could be that the term process painting is a misnomer.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In virtually all process art, from the pouring and staining technique of Morris Louis to the fluid choreography of Bernard Frizes’ patterns, there is a single or at most a small number of very evident stages involving the application of the medium, which give the work its most apparent characteristics. We could call this a signature conceit. In process painting the conceit on which the work rests is most often presented on a large scale if it is not to risk appearing finicky, like a detail from a larger image. This signature, or the result of the processes involved in making the work, are so evident that each successive viewer asks themselves the same single question; How is it done? Continue reading “Ryan Sullivan @ Sadie Coles HQ, Davies St. London, April 26 – June 04, 2016.”