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.
“Southeastern apologies for the late running of this service…” echoes from the tannoy at St Pancras station, but delays aside, the high-speed link to Margate takes just ninety minutes. Once on the coast you can see The Turner Contemporary less than a kilometre away, along the promenade in its stunning sea-front location. The Gallery is completely free and currently exhibiting a retrospective of Grayson Perry’s work from 1980’s to the present day entitled ‘Provincial Punk’ which nicely encapsulates the artists teasing rebellion. Visitors enter into a room filled with free standing plinths showcasing at least fifteen of Perry’s ceramic pots of various sizes, styles and décor; a highlight for me was one shaped like the European Cup called ‘Football Stands For Everything I Hate’ humorously covered in words like ‘pub bores’, ‘bad tattoo’, ‘hair-gel’, ‘cheap fags’ and more. The next room includes additional ceramics including the powerful and provocative ‘Dolls at Dungeness’ made shortly after the attacks on September 11th 2001 and depicts planes in the sky with buildings and children below, and speech bubbles wording ‘help’, ‘go kill yourself for a virgin fuck’ and ‘testosterone addicts’. It also includes etchings, watercolours, collages, early films, and photographs of his most recent 2015 ‘A House for Essex’ project. Not only does it showcase Perry’s talent, it also highlights his intelligence with influences ranging from English 17th century slipware, to global folk pottery, ancient Greece, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, 19th century commemorative plates, his own childhood and much more. The final room is dedicated to three huge tapestries drawn on photo-shop then made with a computer controlled loom. Most notable is ‘The Walthamstow Tapestry’ which parodies the Bayeux Tapestry and successfully intertwines themes ranging from religion, to identity, class, politics and media amongst others. Artistic merit aside, this exhibition provides a thought provoking and wry commentary on contemporary culture.