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"Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone"

The CAMH hosts an engaging, sometimes exasperating show

"I like to get at sentiment through sentimentality," artist Mary Heilmann was quoted saying in the December 2007 issue of ARTnews. That's a good way to wrap up the current main show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, "Mary Heilmann: To Be Someone," a retrospective of the artist's work since the late '60s. Both engaging and, at times, exasperating, the exhibition has the feel of bubblegum pop music; it's ­sugary-sweet and delivered in a huge portion, but it's ultimately insubstantial. The show's the visual art equivalent of Avril La­vigne. The CAMH is partly at fault for this ex­hibit's shortcomings, but more on that later.

Heilmann, born in 1940 in San Francisco, went through a "beatnik-surfer-hippie-chick" phase in the late '60s, then moved to New York and began painting in the style of her heroes, minimalists like Donald Judd and Agnes Martin. Her early work bears that cool-school influence, and Heilmann has bragged that she hung out at Max's Kansas City among the Warhol entourage and bands like the New York Dolls. Heilmann's 1970s output is perhaps the most interesting work on display, because it's actually trying to impress. It wants to be welcomed into the club, to be compared with its contemporaries.

Big Black Mirror exudes something dark and angry.
Courtesy of CAMH
Big Black Mirror exudes something dark and angry.

It was during this time that Heilmann honed her original touches, such as the juxtapositions of geometry and fields of primary color seen in the diptych L.A. Pair (1976) and French Screen (1978), two works that alternate pairings of red, yellow and blue. An interesting recurring motif appears in the form of carefully placed drips of paint, which add an emotional layer to the stark canvases. In The End of the All Night Movie, a square, black canvas with a vertical gray line hugging a pink rectangle, a tiny pink drip kisses the painting just beneath the rectangle, somehow "completing" the abstract narrative — as if Heilmann thought, "This needs something," and gently flicked her brush.

The End of the All Night Movie bears the influence of a 1975 painting, The Big Black Mirror, also square and black, with silvery edges that have been forcefully scraped, exuding something dark and angry. The scraping technique appears again in Pink Knot (1979), a puzzling painting with punk-rock overtones. Heilmann's titles feel well chosen and relevant; Guitar (1979) is a black-and-pink echoing of the day's music trend.

Through the '80s, Heilmann continued to be influenced by music, especially pop music, and her paintings reflect the brightly colored, checkerboard-­emblazoned fashions of the decade. Sentimentality persisted through the '90s, and Heilmann's once-hard edges softened. She named paintings after songs; Lola (1996), named after the Kinks tune, is a stunning duet of background and foreground in which a white checkerboard "fence" obscures a hazy realm of brightly colored blobs. White drips add gloominess to the image, suggesting rain. It's as if Heilmann took the line "It's a mixed up muddled up shook up world" and translated it literally to canvas.

Stripes and crisscrosses have dominated Heilmann's most recent work. Carmelita (2004) is a vertical canvas with alternating stripes of lime green, black, red, brick red, pink and orange, conglomerating in the middle as a bluish, metallic smear. Drips and splattering augment the decidedly sloppy, oozy effect, like layers of sludge settling under the earth. Also, the title, while a proper noun, sounds like the painting looks — say "Carmelita" real slow, and it makes sense somehow.

Heilmann stocks much of her work with references to her private life. Much has been made about her story — she even penned a memoir in 1999. This aspect can get a little frustrating, probably because there's so damn much of it, and because Heilmann's bio shouldn't be necessary to analyze this retrospective. But it's made clear to viewers that works have specific connections to the artist's personal experiences. When the backstory feels as important as the painting itself, we're left shuffling to decide from which perspective to look. In the ARTnews article, Heilmann said, "I think about making art as a kind of conversation." If this is true, then the conversation is always on the same topic: Mary Heilmann and her sentimental journey. But that's somewhat correctable; it isn't the most frustrating thing about this exhibit.

The CAMH got sloppy here. Whether this traveling show was simply too big for the museum, or no one decided to edit, something went wrong. The experience of abstract art can hinge largely on installation and placement. Here it seems as if the CAMH threw it up in a day, covering as much of the walls as possible. Paintings hang in very close proximity with no rhyme or reason as to placement, and they're confusingly labeled. It's as if the museum wants to move you along through the exhibit as quickly as possible; one piece is barely out of one's peripheral vision before the next comes along.

Also confusing are the different-sized, rolling "club chairs" on display. Heilmann designed them for Hauser & Wirth, a gallery based in Zurich and London. The chairs' brightly colored webbing mirrors patterns seen in Heilmann's paintings. Unless one reads the mention buried at the bottom of the museum notes, they'd never know they were actually allowed to sit in them and roll around the museum. The CAMH should have made it clear, maybe through a well-displayed sign, that playing was allowed. As it is, the chairs seem like sculptures. It's unfortunate, because the haphazard installation robbed something from Heilmann's body of work — its laid-back, take-your-time vibe that's more about experience than merely "seeing." Instead, the CAMH turned it into a big, fast, loud, sentimental pop song.

 
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