By Peter Frank

To do is to be – Descartes
To be is to do – Sartre
Do be do be do – Sinatra 
Imagine an almost complete trace of meaning. – Ron Padgett

We may be surrounded by the contemporary, we may have access to the most modern means of existing, but our souls are as old and lost as they ever were. We die alone (or, conversely, “It is always others who die,” as Marcel Duchamp lamented). We live desperate to have our lives reified by others. From moment to moment we don’t know what fate will befall us, certain only of an eventual exit – and uncertain if that exit is an end or a new beginning. Our consciousness is driven by this agnostic anomie, and we envy as much as we pity – if not as much as we fear – the self-deluding certainty of the fundamentalist and the ideologue. 

In their poised angst and meta-confusion – their apparent confusion about the very condition of confusion –  Mercedes Helnwein’s images of us – younger versions, perhaps, and often better dressed, but us as much as them, me as much as you – reflect our existential dread back at us. They act and they exist, but outside of any apparent context. They perform, and they breathe, in a vacuum, a stage devoid of clues. Indeed, they are the clues. Do they present themselves or are they presented? Is Helnwein the presenter or the documenter of the presentation?  Are they in fact presented or are they re-presented? How there are they, that is, how aware of themselves and/or what they are doing do they seem to be?

Helnwein balances her people, whether fully described or portrayed simply as heroically scaled faces, in this limbo of sensation. If anything, she sets them adrift in a contextual vacuum, floating around in search of a raison d’être, a teleology that might tether them to some condition larger than themselves. In life, such meaning might be imparted by vocation, companionship, celebrity, or even creative impulse. Art, as Helnwein realizes it, dispenses with such anchors, suggesting instead that our fragility, not to mention mortality, sucks everything down the abyss, and that we are each drifting toward that eddy.

Thus, despite the self-possessed hair-dos and make-up and clothing armoring Helnwein’s subjects, suspicion and anticipation and intuitive wariness play across their visages. They realize, well beyond their budding femininity, that they are prey, doomed at birth by their very existence. Calamity lurks just beyond their fields of awareness, a “fact” of which they are only too aware. 

Helnwein does not yet want to imbue these frightened creatures with sadness and weariness; she and they remain excited about life’s potential even as they sense its futility – to the point where they can celebrate that futility, or at least ritualize it, ironically enough, through and into art. Reflecting tropes and memes perpetuated by cinema and commercial advertising, theater and pop music, Helnwein neither fetishizes nor criticizes “youth culture,” but muses on the self-aware – and self-deluded – condition of youth. 

It is precisely by focusing on people more or less her age that Mercedes Helnwein is able to convey such a sharp sense of life’s brittle, ever-endangered passion to all of us. Any who can look upon her images can see themselves receding as if in a mirror or oncoming as if in a windshield. But the tension-riven glances that animate these figures adhere us to the present, the eternal present of our lives.

Los Angeles, October 2010

by Shana Nys Dambrot

Mercedes Helnwein discovered the Blues when she was just sixteen. Old Delta Blues, starting with Charlie Patton, Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. She describes a pervasive feeling of alienation from the “normal” youth culture that was being offered to her at that time -- a superficialist homogeneity whose motives and manifestations continue to elude her. But when she got the Blues, all that changed. “It was the most honest, powerful thing I'd ever come across. No kids my age -- no one I knew -- listened to it. The Blues is probably the single most important cultural encounter I’ve had in my life -- and if I were a musician that might be more evident.” But the truth is, it’s pretty evident as things stand. In her work across the interrelated platforms of painting and drawing, short stories and novels, and film and video, she favors narrative protagonists who exude a Southern Gothic, midnight-in-the-garden loneliness, and a languidly awkward melancholy. 

I tried sometimes to be tackled by mysterious depressions and problems that would make life interesting. I tried to be engulfed in frowns that nobody could possibly understand and so be looked upon as a beautiful, tragic enigma. That was my ambition for a while -- to be incomprehensible. I realized later that I had been incomprehensible most of the time anyway, just not in an advantageous, romantic way.

That’s the voice of the narrator of Helnwein’s 2008 novel, The Potential Hazards of Hester Day, in which a gorgeously flawed 18-year old girl takes what her parents view as drastic measures to flee the soul-crushing boredom of her suburban Florida captivity. The narrators of her stories and the subjects of her art (who in both cases are mostly but not all women) have a lot in common. Young and beautiful in a coltish, alien kind of way. Slightly retro in their fashion choices. Aggressively misunderstood by their closest family, animated by a mesmerizing combination of intense curiosity and absolute ambivalence. Reading her prose, it becomes impossible not to visualize its characters as jumping straight off her canvases. In describing them in words, she may as well be describing the population of her sketchbooks. And in speaking about her films, she describes a continuum of exposition that  gives “a glimpse into the world of these characters that are usually frozen into their actions in drawings and paintings." Her work in paint, pencil, prose, and film telegraphs profound meaning and pivotal narrative, but mixes its signals at the last moment, ultimately keeping its secrets.

Helnwein is first and still primarily known for the her operatic, large-scale portraits. Heroic, silent monuments to slight imperfection and psychological projection, these arresting, anti-iconic portraits are unsettling and wry. They exercise an assertive psychological power that perpetrates a kind of memory-seduction of the viewer; and quite aside from the pleasing proportions, evocative line and color, and incisive maxi-minimalism of her visual style, that primal level of engagement is a huge part of the impact of the work. When it comes to that pervasive veneer of American-style complacency, “I refuse to believe that that's normal and that there isn't something strange or unwholesome hiding underneath.” As Hester Day sees it, In dreams everything is so much more worth your trouble. Trouble has style. In real life -- well, look at it. But Helnwein demurs on assigning too much meaning to the symbolism. “There's a lot of psychological content. I don't know what to say really to explain it. In my head there must be crevices where this is coming from and reasons why it makes sense, but I'm not always told about these. All the work is loaded with lots -- I just don't know them all in detail.  People come up with explanations of what's going on in the work on their own, and I think that is the natural thing to happen.  If a painting or drawing can't do that, then I don't know if it really has a point to it -- or any power."

Recently she has become increasingly more elaborate in her compositional setups, placing her characters in settings and scenarios with props and other actors; and it’s no accident that this evolution has coincided with her resurgent interest in filmmaking. “I've been making weird films since I was a kid, and I had a real interest in becoming a filmmaker when I was in my teens. Art just seemed more immediate at the time since it only required myself and some supplies.  When I circled back to making films for my exhibitions years later, I wasn't particularly surprised.  It seemed quite normal to continue where I left off."  While her father Gottfried’s large-scale, luminous and haunting paintings, Cindy Sherman certainly looms large in the dialog about her portraits of women. They want to be read as constructed identities, operating with zeal throughout the iconography of fashion and cinema -- and the use of a disguised self as the primary site in the ongoing and expanding discourse on the inner/outer life of women. Like Sherman’s Film Stills, we see in these works an externalizing of psychological states and experiences, using forms and symbolism that are themselves complicit. “The thing about drawing women is that maybe I can approach the subject matter more from an inside viewpoint, even though the experiences/characters have nothing to do with me,” or so she insists; the impulse to read all of it as veiled autobiography is hard to resist. “I never use professional models, because in my opinion a lot of 'everyday' girls are far more fascinating and beautiful. I like using girls and women who look like there is something that went on in their past -- or something going on right now in the present.  Girls who have flaws in their faces and also in the characters they represent."

When she was young, and drew girls and women, she would make up stories in her head about them that were “far more interesting than stories involving men. Also, men just seemed ugly. It was as simple as that back then. Girls were beautiful, and everything about men seemed boring and kind of gross to me."  (This is a recurring theme in the minds of her novels’ heroines.) “With time, my opinion of men has obviously changed. After puberty and falling in love and heartbreak, there's a whole world about men that I just was not aware of as a kid.” And now that she is aware, they come increasingly to appear in her visual art, and as difficult, elusive, eccentric objects of affection, to animate her manuscripts as well. There is a sense of loss, or of being lost, that permeates the atmosphere of all her work -- and it’s tempting to read it as lovesickness. To have been burnt by love -- that was no doubt the final destination of romanticism. But this menacing wistfulness is always tempered by a comedy of the absurd, be it through the exaggerated behavior or strange props or trickle of blood that thwart convention. “I love film noir stills -- I have books full of them, and I probably get more out of the stills than the actual films. And pulp fiction covers -- especially with science fiction themes."

Helnwein has a way of constructing compositions, plots, settings, and dialog that seem to be in the camp of direct exposition, but instead of imparting facts, these gestural contents leave still more open-ended meanings just out of reach. Like all her work this is both an intuitive and deliberate process. “I would hate for a character to hold a prop that kills any chance for the scene  to breathe or have a life of its own -- that would defeat the whole purpose of creating a work of art.  For me even a knife or a gun can do that -- especially in the kind of lighting and expressions that I use.  There is a fine line, where suddenly it feels right and I am intrigued because I no longer know what exactly is going on .  Then it gets interesting."

Los Angeles, June 2013