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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Jaime Pitarch: The Ryder Projects

Having lived in London all my life it’s always fun to stumble across a new museum or gallery, and hidden down a side street a couple of minutes’ walk from Bethnal Green tube station is The Ryder Projects; a year old converted industrial shelter now promoting early and mid-career artists. Here I discovered Jaime Pitarch’s solo show ‘Time Matters’. Although modest, the space has enough height to have impact and the exposed brick, beams and pipework work sympathetically with the pieces on display. As you enter the space a recommissioned set of bedside drawers (part of the artists’ Momentum series) greets you at jaunty angle – now dysfunctional as a piece of furniture Pitarch uses a clever system of balances and imbalances to keep it suspended precariously. What looks like a simple grey woollen blanket is draped on the back wall behind this, however on closer inspection you realise that the green string has been unwoven from the blanket and is gathered in a ball; typically these blankets are used to transport artworks and so the piece introduces discussion about the economics of the art industry. Continuing with the economic theme, a mobile created from wire and small coinage hangs above the other artworks. It is entitled ‘Calderilla’ which is similar the artists’ native Spanish word for ‘small change’ (carderilla) but is also a humorous play on sculptor Alexander Calder’s name, who heavily influenced this piece. A final darkened area at the rear of the space attempts to make the concept of time more tangible, through a video projection and accompanying sound of a needle against a vinyl record covered in dust having been left in a studio over a period of time. All of the pieces are constructed from cheap or disused materials and it is enjoyable to see an artist exploring complex and sophisticated themes including time, value and productivity through simple, everyday objects.

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