Mary Heilmann: Whitechapel Gallery

Few things fill me with genuine contentment more than strolling down a street towards an art gallery on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with a strong black coffee in hand! And that is exactly the position I found myself in last weekend… heading towards Whitechapel Gallery to catch the Mary Heilmann ‘Looking at Pictures’ exhibition on its final day. This retrospective explores the American abstract artists’ past five decades of work, from her early geometric paintings of the 1970’s through to modernday shaped canvases in day-glo colours. It opens with the honest statement that Heilmann studied poetry, ceramics and sculpture in California but failed to make it as a female sculptor, before taking up painting when she moved to New York in 1968 – her background in sculpture and ceramics is immediately apparent as she clearly views canvases as three-dimensional objects often painting their sides, as well as using her fingers to manipulate paints and create textured surfaces. As you move to the upstairs gallery you are greeted by a projected slideshow entitled ‘Her Life’ which shows photographs Heilmann has taken alongside the abstract images she has created in response to them; not only does this help give context to the exhibition but it is also interesting to witness her interpretation of everyday scenes. The final gallery displays more personal works, and also contains examples of Heilmann’s chairs in a variety of pastel colours enabling visitors to sit down and view and discuss her works at a leisurely pace. Some pieces are intensely biographical including ‘311 Castro Street’ which was the artists’ childhood address and ‘Maricopa Highway’ which was a road-trip she regularly took, and one final piece depicting a crashing wave in bold, lush greens and blues offers visitors a final reminder of Heilmann’s distinctly Californian background.

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One of Heilmann’s early abstract works and arguably my favourite piece in the exhibition
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Another early geometric work
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The final galleries showing later works as well as examples of Heilmann’s chairs

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The World of Charles and Ray Eames: The Barbican

The Barbican’s current exhibition dedicated to the creations of Charles and Ray Eames celebrates the couple’s contribution to twentieth century design beyond their well-known innovations in furniture. There are some beautiful individual pieces on display and I thoroughly enjoyed the insights offered into their personal and professional relationship, but I did find it lacking an overall theme and at times quite difficult to follow. The curators describe the Eameses as “enthusiastic and tireless experimenters” and a couple who “embraced the joy of trial and error” which certainly comes across in the constantly changing focus of the exhibition – from their furniture and product design, to architecture, exhibition-making, photography, and even forays into education. The show opens with plywood constructions ranging from a plane wing to a medical stretcher and leg splints, immediately highlighting not only the couple’s product design skills but also their fascination with experimentation. It goes on to display a wall of ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazine covers designed by Ray Eames throughout the 1940’s, showcasing his skill in graphic design. It moves on to explore the numerous competitions and commissions the duo entered, including ‘New Furniture’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1946, ‘Arts & Architecture’ magazines’ commission of eight houses in California, a post-war Museum of Modern Art competition for low cost furniture, and developmental pieces from the IBM Pavilion at New York’s World Fair in 1964-’65. Personal highlights included a letter from Charles proposing marriage to Ray which is charmingly childlike including a sketch of Ray’s left hand alongside an engagement ring! I also appreciated viewing the Eameses chairs which went on to be mass produced by the Herman Miller Furniture Co. (an precursor to IKEA), as well as a replica of their 1950’s ‘Musical Tower’ – a playful gravity powered xylophone made from wood, metal, acrylic, lacquer, rubber and resin.

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