Let’s not get too bogged down in who Mercedes Helnwein is just yet. Let us, for the moment, focus on the work which, with Helnwein, is a writer’s dream. No matter how you attempt to describe her art, you can’t really go wrong, given that one avoids words like “convivial” and “uplifting”. Helnwein traffics in oblique, moody portraits brimming with psycho-drama. It’s the kind of art that hits me where I live.
Helnwein’s latest solo show, “Make It Dark” at Merry Karnowsky Gallery, once again shows off her considerable talents with a number of mediums; oils, graphite, pastels, etc. I know it’s unfair of me, but I tend to hold all portraits up to the John Singer Sargent prism. Technically, Helnwein passes that test with ease. Her oil portraits have the feel of Sargent’s somber, disquieting Rossina Ferrara study. Her graphite drawings are executed with a light, confident hand.
But it’s conceptually where Helnwein firmly plants her flag and provides chewy grist for the aesthetes. You know how Edward Hopper’s paintings were less about the people in the work than they were about the spaces they inhabited and the silent tension that filled said space? Well, Mercedes Helwein obliterates the space altogether, instead focusing on the inner turmoil emanating from her subjects. She’s pulling you into the scene and thus amplifying the dour tautness of whatever the hell is going on there. You’re never quite sure what’s happening (or happened) in Helnwein’s pieces, you just know it’s not good. Many of her figures look apprehensive or incredulous, some are aloof, but they are all clearly wounded. A wide-eyed woman, rendered in blue pencil, stares at you frightful and hesitant while faint blushes of pink make her appear bruised. In both studies of East Kansas City, a woman is hunched over, presumably in pain. In the first, the woman is clutching her stomach as if she’s about to puke. In the second, she’s clinging to a chair, perhaps propping herself up. Did she fall? Was she knocked down? Is she drunk? Poisoned? These are the questions Mercedes Helnwein wants you to ask. Just don’t look to her for answers. The title Naked Lunch is unlikely to provide you any context for the woman who seems to be having trouble with her contact lens. Whatever the Florida Truth is may lay in the square tile being held up by the supine lady on the floor, but it’s a mystery to me. The recurring raptor also remains enigmatic. Helnwein’s stark chiaroscuro drawings of figures in Fifties style garb and coif, give her work a cinematic, David Lynch-ian quality. It’s not that the work is esoteric, just impenetrable, and deeply unsettling.
Helnwein has good genes. She’s the daughter of world renowned artist Gottfried Helnwein. One of Mercedes’ first shows was curated by actor/art collector Jason Lee. She’s worked with Beck. She’s written a novel. She’s also a filmmaker. One of her shows was bought, in its entirety, by Damien Hirst. But all that is superfluous. Sure, it makes her a rock star in the art world, but that becomes so distracting from the matter at hand, and that is the work. Mercedes Helnwein is one of the most consistently riveting artists working today, and “Make It Dark” is among the most inscrutable, disconcerting exhibits of the year, which, for me, marks it as one of the best.
“Make It Dark” runs through December 29th, 2012Merry Karnowsky Gallery
170 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Tues.–Sat. 12 p.m.-6 p.m.