New York

Willy Heeks

David Beitzel Gallery

Willy Heeks continues to display a laudable, even thrilling ambition in his paintings, with each successive show pushing into fresh abstract territory. His snarls of thickly applied paint from a couple of years ago, with their science-fiction overtones suggesting dangerously pulsating molecules, seemed to burst off the canvas, like a chain reaction run amok. Now Heeks has dispersed this same energy over the surfaces of his paintings, moving from a distinctly figurative style to a more allover mode. The new images suggest networks, traffic grids, electronic circuit boards, on the one hand, or decorative fretwork—Indian, say, or Arabian—on the other. This is augmented by Heeks’ use of dripping paint, which seems to have enjoyed a general resurgence of popularity of late, as a tactic to harness chance effects in the service of a specific kind of painterly beauty.

This new work promises more than it delivers, though. Heeks lays brilliant ground-work for a final ante-upping twist of his painterly terms, but never quite comes through. The eye wanders over tangled webs of paint and moves back and forth into the space of the painting, waiting for the decisive incident—the punctum that will catch the eye—but too often it never comes. In The Prophet (all works 1990), for example, dark openwork on a noxious greenish yellow background establishes a mood of ominous oppression; from the center of this confining structure bursts a bouquet of light—golden and white curlicues—that almost, but never quite, break free of the background. The drama here—the triumph of light over dark, or of pure color over muddied color—is perhaps too obvious, and his central figures remain collections of lines that are pointedly delightful, allowing a viewer to admire them comfortably, with no sense of threat or further challenge.

Maybe these pictures are just too well made; they reflect the work of too knowing a hand. Heeks seems to be aiming to combine the kind of allover hum of a Jackson Pollock, say, with Willem de Kooning’s central iconic image, but often there is no real event here, nothing to disrupt the smooth digestion of the luscious painting. These are amazingly beautiful paintings, dizzying in their visual and material effects, but they want to be better—the want to mean. This ambition is a central and undeniable strength; that they don’t (yet) fully live up to it is only a promise of better things to come.

Charles Hagen

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