Signs and Wonders: Mary Heilmann Curates

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Signs and Wonders: Mary Heilmann Curates


Griffin, Tim, Artforum International


TIM GRIFFIN: We got the images you sent, but you'll still probably have some conversations with our designer, Joseph Logan, in the next few days--just about how you see the different pictures sort of working with one another, how you want to see them laid out, what sorts of pairings you'd like to see. Even how many you imagine on a page.

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MARY HEILMANN: OK, um, I'm good with that.

TG: And I might even ask you that right now, if you have any feelings about that.

MH: Uh, I haven't thought about it too much, but I'm interested in doing that. I might even be able to ... well, we'll talk. And I've sent more images than we're probably going to use.

TG: But, now, what was the arbiter, insofar as your selecting these particular images? What do you see as a common strand here?

MH: Well, the idea is still "signs and wonders." And, um, I'm thinking about how images of things from high and low culture--and often from the culture of popular music--have, ever since I was little, set off my imagination to make me want to make artwork. And that the music, the structure of music, and the culture of music are really important to me. So, that explains why the Black Flag logo is in there, and uh, the Drifters, and like that....

TG: By "structure," you mean composition? Are there individual works that you would point to, or a compositional technique?

MH: Well, like, I mean that the way you can get an abstract feeling of emotion from the way music plays out is parallel to the way you can in non-image painting. That's one thing. And then a song has a title, and my paintings have titles, so that they function as little poems to make the person have a thought about what the painting is about, even though it's not a picture of something.

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TG: Right. So how do you see titles inflecting your paintings? There's Rude Boy, I know. And Hokusai, Game of Chance, Surfing on Acid ... all of these are abstract works.

MH: I think that people read the title and they free-associate and come up with imaginings ... like Rude Boy, they think of reggae and also of the Clash, and start channeling the '80s. So that's kind of like, not done in modernism, but is kind of postmodern.

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TG: That's interesting. How would you sort of distinguish what happens in modernism from your work?

MH: In modernism you weren't supposed to have a subject matter like that. And now I'm thinking of Donald Judd and others, how [inaudible] they were about that. Their work wasn't about anything but itself. And I totally don't think that's the case. I like to look at work--all work--from a lot of different perspectives, like, psychologically, when it comes to those guys.

TG: So you might say you offer sort of an abstraction steeped in reality. You begin to see something else in what's before you.

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MH: You could say that, yeah.

TG: OK, and I'm looking at this surf picture.

MH: I found that in a book about surf movie posters.

TG: And I guess, I mean, it might not have anything to do with the sprinkler.

MH: Oh, but it does. The wave and the sprinkler are both water and both opposites of the same shape.

TG: How do you see them working together?

MH: Well, in fact you can see the, um, the structure of lots of these images have that kind of splashing or pouring feeling to them. So what you would do, say, if you were writing about surf, or the sprinkler, is that you might start riffing on it the way you might talk about metaphors in a poem. …

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