When Wieteke Heldens’ studio at ISCP (International Studio & Curatorial Program) in Brooklyn was closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, she continued to work on smaller-scale works at home in Astoria, Queens. She is shown here at home drawing on her health insurance bills. The large work on the right is one of Heldens’ Legend paintings. Also shown: a color wheel by Pietertje van Splunter and Kanye West clock by ClockWork Cros.

BY CHRISTINE MINAS | October 5, 2020

The great thing about art fairs is not only the art you see. There’s also the opportunity to meet new people, which can lead to the spark of new connections. Of course, with many fairs now being online only due to the pandemic, that crucial social part of the experience is on hold. 

One such spark for me occurred in 2017 during the Code Art Fair in Copenhagen. There I discovered the work of Dutch artist Wieteke Heldens, the subject of this Artist Spotlight. It turned out that she had a studio at Flux Factory in Long Island City, New York, which basically made us neighbors on a different continent. 

The works on view at Chart were from her ongoing Legends series. In her early 30s Heldens found herself in an ICU unit following a totally unexpected heart attack. She was in a critical state when she started counting the colors she saw in her room. The colors came to exist in her mind without relation to their corresponding forms and objects. 

Once she was on the mend and back in her studio, she transferred her experience of counting colors into a new body of work called Legends. Each of the colors she had on hand at the studio—paints, colored pencils, markers, etc.—became an enumerated color in her new paintings. Each color is “captioned” with a number, as you would see on a map legend. Heldens has made Legend paintings all over the world—from her studios in The Hague and New York City to Turin and South Korea. 

The Legend, 2020, mixed media on canvas, 108 x 90 cm (43 x 35 in)

Wieteke Heldens grew up in the southern part of Holland where her family owned an ice cream factory. She spent most of her free time at the factory, using scraps of paper and other unused materials to make art. Her parents were supportive of her artistic interests and she studied with a local painter until she went to college, completing a degree at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2007. She went on to win the Royal Award for Modern Painting in the Netherlands in 2013. 

The experience from a young age of working with whatever was around, making the most of materials on hand and pushing them to their physical limits on the 2D plane are threads that continue to run through her work. These ideas can also be seen in the series It’s Like You Know which follows concepts she established in Legends. In the former works, she loads her brush with paint and then proceeds to ‘clean’ the brush directly on the canvas. Once the brush has no more paint on it, she loads it up again. 

The name for the series comes from a conversation she overheard between two kids in the Netherlands. One child explained to the other the multiple meanings of the word like: the same or equal, or to enjoy and care for. Heldens added “you know,” which itself has multiple meanings—a substitution for something not necessary to say aloud, a stand-in for something that cannot be thought of at the present moment, and as a question that could imply, “are you still listening?” or “do you understand?”

It’s Like You Know, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 108 cm (35 x 43 inches)

Heldens is at heart a conceptual artist, obsessed with personal algorithms and the multiple meanings of various words and numbers in world cultures. For both the Legends and It’s Like You Know series, the metric dimensions are an essential aspect of the work. The specifics of her self-imposed rules are beyond the scope of this article but are noteworthy because they inform the parameters she sets up for making her paintings. Her methodology is the spiritual cousin to approaches taken by her fellow Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan as well as Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara. 

Upon her 2010 arrival in New York, Heldens fell in love with the ubiquitous paper bags that contained her takeaway meals from bodegas and cafes. She began a practice of unfolding the empty bags and meticulously tracing all of the creases, with the finer lines garnering as much attention as the significant folds. There is a fragility to these marks which resemble old maps, networks of veins or intricate underground root systems. 

Before her heart attack she used to call these works “I am sorry no content,” implying no meaning, nothing inside and no satisfaction—the three definitions of “content.” After her heart attack, she changed the titles to “with content,” now indicating the opposite: with meaning, with something inside, with satisfaction. 

With Blue Content, 2018, marker on brown paper bag, 37 x 44 cm (14½ x 17¼ inches)

The artist’s most recent body of work plays out on documents she has received in the mail, from medical bills to a recent letter from her landlord. Shown here is To All Tenants, a letter reminding tenants that despite the moratorium on evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic, rents are still expected in full and on time. 

To All Tenants, 2020, multi-color pencil on a letter from the artist’s landlord, 22 x 56 cm (8½ x 11 inches)

These small-scale works on paper reveal an uncomfortable relationship between a surface covered in an upbeat rainbow concoction and the (fairly threatening) demands underneath. They are some of the most direct works in her oeuvre, as the intentional semi-transparency reveals the kind of juxtaposition that gets to the heart of Wieteke’s work. Hers are aesthetic objects that engage on the surface with a dynamic interplay of color and composition. Yet underneath that initial layer is a sense of unease, of a situation on edge and stability threatened. She negotiates this paradox by applying her own strict rules to each body of work. It’s her way of negotiating between the aesthetic experience and the seeping in of life’s natural havoc, whether in the form of infirm health or economic, social and political upheaval.

View of Heldens’ studio at ISCP (International Studio & Curatorial Program) in Brooklyn

See Her Work In Real Life:
Heldens is currently part of a group show called The Earth is Blue Like an Orange at ISCP in Brooklyn. If you would like to see the show and have a tour with the artist, please contact christine@christineminas.com as visits are by appointment only. 

About Wieteke Heldens: 
Wieteke Heldens graduated from the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, in 2007. Heldens’ work has been shown internationally, including the Haags Gemeentemuseum in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Denmark, South Korea and the United States. She has also worked as an artist-in-residence in Chongqing, China and Turin, Italy. In 2013 Heldens won the Royal Award for Modern Painting in the Netherlands. She is a recipient of a Stipendium for Established Artists of the Mondriaan Fund. Currently she is an Artist-in-Residence of the Ground Floor Program at ISCP (International Studio & Curatorial Program), New York.

Follow Wieteke Heldens on Instagram here or on her Borzo Gallery page here