In the 1970s Mary Heilmann, an American painter, did something to abstract painting that, at that time, seemed pretty unlikely.
She made paintings of blocks, stripes and other shapes that seemed fun and silly one minute, and nightclub seedy the next. They could conjure the atmosphere of being on a dark highway or in a child’s playpen. Her paintings could be mournful, sexy or energetic, communicating, very subtly, with combinations of colour, structure and highwire balance between precision and mess something that language cannot describe easily. Though for some time she was a quintessential ‘artist’s artist’, Heilmann begun to receive wider acclaim over the last decade and was the subject of a touring retrospective.
At Hauser & Wirth are a selection of paintings, ceramics and furniture made over the last few years. Heilmann intends that viewers sit on the jazzy, acid-bright chairs that she has created and placed around the space to ‘hang out’ with her paintings. She treats art history like the best mashup DJ - her chairs are remixes Donald Judd and Gerrit Rietveld with a pop twist.
Many of her paintings are made on wooden boards in blockish shapes like Tetris pieces, some jammed together. One set of works on show here, that have a base colour of lurid green – Fracture and Spill (2010), for example, speak to me of a very particular tone of 1980s colour – ugly fluro green with black, set upon by hot pinks and yellows that appear to ooze slowly down the painting. They are garish yet full of mischief and possibility, and put me in mind of a Hallowe’en I spent in an American town when I was a child, visiting a costume shop full of bright gunky goo and facepaints, and seeing shop windows in grubby malls with fluorescent colour clashes. In a double painting work Pink Mirage (2011) a jumble of pink paint shades arrange themselves into a grid on the right hand side, whilst splashing and wobbling around on the canvas on the left.
Heilmann’s paint handling sometimes has a quality that seems, if not childish, then certainly playful. Smeary, or too watery, applied unevenly and with what looks like a devil-may-care approach (her work has been described as a ‘smart joke’). Coloured ceramic spots line the walls as though they were paintings too, like flat lumpy smarties – one green spot even has a little red mark on it like a sweet, saucy kiss.