Arts Review: To Lead One Beyond All Paintings

Heidi Van Wieren’s paintings on view at the Englert’s second floor gallery space are magnificent objects. They are everything one wants an abstract painting to be: thick paint slides and wrinkles down the surface of the panel with fiendishly slow intensity. Materials congeal to create mesmerizing visual patterns. Compositions are engaging and surprising. They are also everything that painting has been criticized for becoming: rich, sensuous and dazzling objects that despite (or perhaps because of) their formal complexity could be poster children for the decadence of painting.

The tension present in these paintings is diametrically opposed to that in Gaia Nardie-Warner’s work reviewed in these pages last month. Where Nardie-Warner’s paintings verged on becoming “nothings,” Van Wieren’s paintings walk a line between what painting can be, and seeks to be, and what it is often accused of being—a luxurious commodity. It is, in one way, a more comfortable line to tow (luxury commodities being easier to unload than nothings), but the line that is being walked is no less treacherous, and potentially no less fruitful.

If painting is dead, it is because painting has lost the ability to be anything more than a mere object (that paintings can do nothing outside of their existence as precious commodities). If painting is alive and well, it is because paintings can nourish us in some way beyond the adornment of a fashionable home or office. In paintings like Van Wieren’s, where the material qualities (and visible process of the works making) are so central, they provide the axis around which any interpretation (and evaluation) must revolve.

The striations created by wet-into-wet brushwork or poured mixing with that gorgeous, viscous, enamel-glue combination, hold in quiet tension the precise, structured and delicate lines with the unpredictable, wonky distortions created by gravity and the movements of the liquid. As the paint dried, cracks opened up to reveal layers behind the paint in fissures reminiscent of parched earth. Bulbous forms created by poured paint stack up on top of each other, creating tense figure/ground ambiguities.

All of these formal properties invite associations with the human life of making: the pressure of one’s will against the materials, the reaction of the materials to the forces of gravity and demands of chemistry, the happy discoveries of patterns and structures in mistakes and detritus, the pile-up of decisions and revisions. The body of the paintings addresses the body of the viewer, and the material of the paint speaks to the material character of human existence.

Given the structure of Van Wieren’s project, and her sensitivity with the materials, the paintings have a kind of guaranteed content: in work where the process is so evident, the painter (and viewer) are allowed to engage in a kind of free play with the materials that is rife with opportunities for discovery. My reservation about these paintings is that the process of making them can obscure the images that result, and the process that produces the paintings can slide from a means of arriving at the painting into becoming that painting’s end.

This reservation is heightened especially by the presentation of one of the paintings on top of a kind of drop cloth that collected pools of paint that had run off of what appears to be a different painting, which gives the lie to the process that generated the paintings. Such an inclusion in the exhibit breathes forth the joy of creation in the studio; it witnesses to the observed accidents that clearly led to the structures created within the paintings. But it also undermines the most important act in a process-based work: taking it out of the studio, and allowing it to stand on its own.

That one can, through the process of applying the paint, be driven beyond any idea that one has about what a painting can be is one of the richest and deepest sources for meaning in painting. But it is a source for meaning, and not the meaning of the work itself. The process that generates the work must come to an end in order for the painting to be successful. And at the end of that process, the painting must stand on its own. And it must stand on its own not as a diamond does, the meaningless product of a slow process of heat and pressure, but as a human creation must, as a vehicle of meaning.

Van Wieren’s statement places the source material for the paintings in her memories of childhood, growing up surrounded by patterns and images in a ubiquitous Delft blue: The swirling strings of blue that pulse through the paintings seem to have, for the artist, an effect rather like that of Proust’s madeleine—bringing forth a lost time into existence again through memory. I personally have difficulty holding these associations together with the paintings—and they do not have the effect for me of taking me to an unfamiliar place in another’s memory. The paintings take me to a painted place, which is governed by a very different set of rules than the visual resonances of childhood memories.

At their best, Van Wieren’s paintings are engaging explorations of the nature of that painted place. But the work easily slips into a self-referential circularity, the subject of the work slipping from evocations of the frailty of human creation into a controlled, virtuoso performance with an unusual set of materials. I cannot escape the feeling that the work is a prolegomena—that the medium has not yet found its message. The handling of the materials seems to outstrip the content it communicates. That there is content is not a question—the question, it seems to me, is of the greater content that this process can accommodate.

Brian Prugh is a graduate student studying painting at The University of Iowa. He also writes art criticism for the Iowa City Arts Review, found online at

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