It is the goal of “Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures” to revel in a highly emotional, autobiographical artistic output that straddles Surrealism, Pop and post-Minimalist abstraction (three highly masculine discourses, to be sure). Paintings, ceramics and a surprisingly intimate slideshow populate Whitechapel’s wide and inviting gallery spaces, offering us a glimpse into a career that has been intensely inventive since the 1970s. While it is true that Heilmann’s work is quirky, personal and joyful, it is not immune to formal rigor. In this way she requires us to combine biographical and historical analysis.
Good Vibrations Diptych, Remembering David (2012), for example, requires just such scrutiny. Its splashing circus of paint and ceramics, even in its flamboyance, reduces chromatic experience into a sort of distilled extreme. In Georges Bataille’s 1930 essay “Joan Miró: Peintures Récentes,” he says of Miró’s paintings, “The little angry and alienated elements proceeded to a new irruption, before once more disappearing into these paintings, leaving traces of who knows what disaster.” It is not that Heilmann’s work is itself terrifying (although it has a foreboding element of chromatic excess that, like Wayne Thiebaud’s thick impasto, seems wonderfully, deliciously overripe like a browning banana). However, like Miró, Heilmann legitimizes painting by showing us what its most fundamental elements can accomplish, as if she has created a post-painterly emergency food storage upon which we can subsist.
While tales of Heilmann’s influences in music or beach culture are interesting, what we gain from seeing all of her work in one place is much more complex. It is the moment of Bataille’s eruption — wherein shapes and hues and textures are so deftly and sympathetically stretched that you must reshuffle the very building blocks of postmodern painting. There are entirely new possibilities that Heilmann forges for us, which leads to a break in normative vision that is both disastrous and, as Bataille would say, intensely generative.