Lighthearted and inventive musings by Ulrike Heydenreich occupy the main gallery at Thomas Barry Fine Arts in Minneapolis. Her whimsical drawing machines and precise, meticulous schematics complement Melanie Pankau’s lush abstractions, visible in an adjacent room.
Both artists create patient, careful works that require time to absorb, and transport viewers to a realm of gentle assertion and careful observation. Heydenreich designs variations on drafting tables and plein air workstations. In her carefully considered graphite drawings, she carves firm and controlled lines onto fine paper in a manner both blithe and lighthearted, but also intensely serious. The designs yield pristine, elegant, and utilitarian sculptures.
Three graceful devices stand quietly in corners of the exhibition. One structure is a collapsible gazebo constructed of lightweight canvas over a metal skeleton. An angled tray follows the perimeter inside the cylindrical hut, creating a waist-high ledge to support curved sheets of drawing paper. Looking through the acetate panoramic viewing window of her spacious gazebo, Heydenreich has begun meticulously rendering the seams and folds of a mountain landscape. She is also incorporating transcribed elements of her installation at Thomas Barry.
Her translation functions as a descriptive cartography, engaging a process of mental, physical, and spatial orientation. While her somber and careful description is rigorous and carefully controlled, her humorous reinvention of common routine simultaneously cuts ties with gravity, revealing her ingenuity as she evades entrapment. Her gazebo and panoramic drawing devices afford a direct translation of her complete field of vision, unencumbered by the limiting restraints of a flat, rectangular sheet of paper. This unconventional periphery enables a release from the horizontal bounds of a traditional surface, metaphorically inspiring other possible evasions of routine and habit.
Heydenreich’s exhibition also includes a large quilted nautical compass – a sewn tapestry of red silk embroidery thread quilted neatly into soft, pillowy muslin. A trail of sewing pins with red glass heads radiates out from the center to the periphery of the 101 x 110” blanket. Between layers of fabric, the loose, curling end of a red thread is faintly visible through the upper skin of muslin. The compass remains deliberately unfinished; in an exhibition where designs become machines to enable the creation of more designs, it seems natural that Heydenreich would reveal her process of creation in her sewn compass as well. An additional detail reveals Heydenreich’s commitment to research and visual specificity: because True North (where meridian lines converge at the North Pole) is not equal to the magnetic North identified by a compass, the vertical axis of Heydenreich’s compass is not perpendicular to the gallery floor, and “0” is located halfway up the right side of the compass.
In delicate black and white images of water printed upon square panels of clear glass, Heydenreich has performed a nautical navigation of her own. Over coffee, Heydenreich explained to me that these ocean topographies were photographed while she was swimming in the water, holding an underwater camera precisely at surface level as she floated between the heave and swell of the waves. The printed images rest on swatches of felt and canvass on the gleaming hardwood floor of the gallery, leaning humbly against the wall. It seems they could be easily wrapped and packaged and toted away.
In this exhibition, the images function as visual source material for Heydenreich to carefully render from her position inside the gazebo at Thomas Barry Fine Arts. They allow her to bring a fluid, amorphous outdoor landscape inside the gallery, and permit her to reinvent the otherwise odious task of rendering the rectangular interior space of the gallery.
Heydenreich’s process of invention begins in her sketchbook. Frustrated by the disruptive act of turning pages, she created a table that supports two spools of drawing paper, forming an inverted scroll across the surface of the desk. The seemingly boundless ream of paper allows her ideas to populate the page as a visual map in which ideas are inspired by other ideas. Though she considers these impulsive beginnings to be loosely dawn and preliminary, they are actually quite particular and specific. The best of these drawings are given further attention as she renders them with intense focus and concentration on more luxurious paper, preserving the deckled edge and working without the safety net offered by an eraser.
The drawings patiently explain the mechanics of her immaculate sculptures. She suggests alternative strategies to the problem of rendering a landscape: you could, if you want, lash saplings together to make an outdoor easel. Or, you could try constructing a suitcase with holes drilled in either side to accommodate the spindles of two spools of paper. She makes it seem easy. Her drawings are refreshing reminders that we can favorably restructure many of our perceived limitations and frustrations and struggles.
Heydenreich’s “Preparatory Objects” share a similar sense of invention with Melanie Pankau’s gouache paintings in an adjacent room. Pankau’s mysterious abstractions recall seed pods, pearl necklaces, and the embracing and enclosing forms of feathered wings. Patterns and shapes migrate and drift across the layered surfaces of her paintings, weaving a poetic narrative in a metaphoric translation of patterns found in nature. Her paintings have a complex sense of interiority and quiet perseverance that operates well beside Heydenreich’s exhibition.
Both Heydenreich and Pankau prompt a journey of mental travel in a manner that seems effortless and buoyant. Their tranquil and serene explorations and reverent, nimble, descriptive observations launch an experience of innovation and discovery for the viewer, and suggest that perhaps with a little ingenuity, the tethers and boundaries we create for ourselves can be cast aside.