Mary Heilmann

Robbin Lockett Galery

Mary Heilmann’s recent abstract paintings are characterized by an almost brazen diffidence—a dispassionate equanimity—that ultimately proves entirely satisfying. Nothing appears hurried or particularly cries out for attention, nothing asserts itself, suggests conflict, or even proposes decisive resolutions. Rather, these curious painterly geometric abstractions read as judicious but meandering artistic interventions evidencing everywhere a generous, maker-friendly voice. Heilmann’s decisions appear so void of focus, so nearly arbitrary, that it is surprising that she achieves such stunning results.

Heilmann’s paintings employ a geometrical vocabulary, but dispense with positivist or transcendent postures. Odd grids assemble and disassemble themselves before our eyes, blatantly lacking the energy to impose a structure that will channel or dominate the canvas. Miss Hunter, 1989, a bored jumble of rectangles, reads as if Heilmann willfully abjured responsibility for her involvement; her palette is reduced to two colors, a washy white and a thoughtless cardinal red, both smeared across the surface with lazy abandon. Drippy splotches, uneven overpainting, and even languorously stretched canvas endows these works with a degree of abject imperturbability.

Mona Lisa, 1989, an eight-sided abstract painting, the silhouette of which is determined by a viscous white square partially superimposed over a hot pink one, brings Heilmann’s practice into a degree of focus. It is both flashy and modest—its title not so much an act of sarcasm as a declaration of equivalence. Much gets leveled in Heilmann’s work; preexisting belief systems and cultlike artistic hierarchies clash with her resolute disinterest in canon, and are washed away beneath her brushy surfaces. Her ability to suggest all this with such pointedly modest images accounts, in no small measure, for the work’s power. This is a deflation that enhances, and a paring away that exposes. Heilmann’s painterly style constitutes a mannerism with a message, an amiable removal from artistic fray.

Both Guadalupe, 1989, and Valentine, 1990, subject eight-sided canvas shapes to rather aimless and delightful variegations. In Guadalupe a casual aqua-blue line sinuously wends its way across a weak grid. It’s like a bit of Celtic manuscript doodling, a linear throat-clearing that becomes the entire performance. Valentine presents webs of lines that enclose spaces, some of which are then randomly “filled-in” with red paint. Rather than imposing solutions, Heilmann’s tactics suggest a stream of consciousness, even a logic of indecision. From her absence of will comes not chaos, but almost a natural order, and a series of pictures that solve themselves.

James Yood