Good Vibrations in Maastricht

In Maastricht, the first weekend of 2013 was damp, foggy and mild, but the city shone. Maastricht wrapped in soft gray fog and glistening with drizzle may not sound like the stuff of an appealing weekend, but these were the last few days of the Christmas period and the city was beautifully lit. The cafés were teeming, the shops were busy and the cobblestone streets rang with a polyglot mix of Dutch, German, French and English as well as the local Limburgse taal. I would have been perfectly happy to spend my time window-shopping, sipping Coffeelovers‘ cappuccino, and trying out the promising restaurants, but I had come to visit the art museum.

BonnefantenDesigned by the Milanese architect Aldo Rossi, the exterior of the Bonnefantenmuseum is executed in plain red brick and stone. The building is shaped like an E lying on its side with the main entrance set into the long side of the E turned to the Avenue Ceramique. The outer horizontal bars of the E form wings on either side of the central bar, which houses an open, glass-topped monumental staircase leading up from the ground floor to the visitor galleries on the first and second floors. At the tip of the central bar of the E sits a zinc-clad tower. I approached the building from the Avenue Ceramique and I would have walked right past it had it not been for the banners displayed on the exterior. From the street, the building looks like an old factory, but seen from the river, it is strikingly modern and appealing. In the nicest possible way, the whole thing reminded me of a rocket launcher in an old James Bond film.

Since 2000, the Bonnefantenmuseum has presented the Biennial Award for Contemporary Art (BACA) to honor visual artists for their ‘influence’ and ‘personality.’ In 2012, the award was presented to the American artist Mary Heilmann. As part of the award, the museum organised Good Vibrations, the first European retrospective of Heilmann’s work.

If your first association is the Beach Boys hit from 1966, you’re not far off the mark. Heilmann was born in San Francisco in 1940, but spent her youth on the beaches of Los Angeles. The waves, the ocean, the surf and sand have a strong presence in her paintings together with that other great American icon, the open road. There is a wonderful openness and freshness about her deceptively simple paintings. She uses a lot of very bright color (think The Simpsons) and combines them in surprising and energetic ways. Looking at her paintings makes you happy.

Heilmann trained as a sculptor, but switched to painting around 1970. Her paintings retain sculptural elements because she treats her canvasses as objects as well as paintings. She shapes many of the paintings by fashioning together two or several canvasses to create an irregular outline. By applying paint to the sides of the canvas, she again emphasizes the paintings as objects. Good Vibrations also featured some of her club chairs made from wood with seats and backs vowen out of bands of nylon, and fitted with casters. She offers the chairs to visitors to her exhibitions so that they can sit down and enjoy the paintings, and possibly have a conversation with them, just like she does in her own studio. I sat in Clubchair 19, a creation so bright neon pink I had no choice but to sit in it to shield my eyes!

In this short clip from an production, Heilmann talks about her shaped canvasses while putting the finishing touches on a piece called Two-Lane Blacktop.

In the next clip, she talks about two sources of inspiration for her work, the wabi-sabi sentiment she found in some Japanese pottery and The Simpsons.

In the last clip she talks refreshingly about abstract expressionism and Willem de Kooning.

For more information about Mary Heilmann and Good Vibrations, you can download the exhibition booklet here. It includes photographs of the show at the Bonnefantenmuseum as well as some pretty readable commentary.

I also recommend an interview published on the Hyperallergic art blog on January 12 this year.