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Chaos Theory

FOR MERCEDES HELNWEIN, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE STORY – OR THE POSSIBILITIES BURIED WITHIN A FRAGMENT OF A STORY. SHE HAS BEEN CRAFTING HER STORIES AND SEARCHING FOR THOSE POSSIBILITIES VIA WORDS AND PICTURES FOR AS LONG AS SHE CAN REMEMBER.

In her recent work, Heln­wein focu­ses on sub­ur­ban Ame­ri­can ado­lescence and fami­ly life, sourcing her images from anony­mous pho­to­graphs or from cha­rac­ters posed in living room sets she crea­tes in her stu­dio. The ori­gi­nal sce­nes are repli­ca­ted in oil pas­tel (a medi­um the artist feels lends its­elf to “ampli­fy­ing the dis­quiet of the see­min­gly inno­cuous moments”), lay­ing bare the angst and ten­si­on with which fami­ly ritu­als and youth­ful endea­vors are often frau­ght. From trick-or-trea­ting and fami­ly gathe­rings to school dan­ces and class pic­tures, she returns to the sub­jects of quo­ti­di­an ado­lescent and fami­li­al rou­ti­nes over and over to cap­tu­re the acci­den­tal emo­ti­ons and inherent dra­mas that she belie­ves the­se iso­la­ted moments betray.

Like­wi­se, in Helnwein’s Cha­os Theo­ry, com­plex emo­tio­nal and rela­tio­nal sys­tems reign. Heln­wein iso­la­tes the­se moments, cap­tu­ring sli­ces of life that are imbued with a sen­se of latent dra­ma about to unfold. 

Helnwein’s ear­ly years were spent far remo­ved from the typi­cal­ly Ame­ri­can life­style por­tray­ed in her work. Born in Vien­na, Aus­tria, in 1979, she is the daugh­ter of the renow­ned artist Gott­fried Heln­wein. They moved to Ire­land when she was 14, and sin­ce 2000 she has been divi­ding her time bet­ween her family’s cast­le in Ire­land and her home in Los Ange­les. Gott­fried Heln­wein didn’t push his artis­tic influ­ence on his daugh­ter, but he did instill in her his noti­on that „Art is not an ans­wer, it is a ques­ti­on“. So ques­ti­on every minu­te pos­si­bi­li­ty she does. Her palet­te, main­ly limi­ted to grays, greens, and pinks, obscu­res cer­tain details in some pic­tures. In others, she spreads thick swaths of medi­um across the sur­face with an expres­si­ve ges­tu­re and lea­ves us to decode the signi­fi­can­ce. She often crea­tes nume­rous ver­si­ons of a sin­gle sce­ne, see­king to escape its claus­tro­pho­bic effect and obses­si­ve­ly ana­ly­zing the many pos­si­ble inter­pre­ta­ti­ons depen­ding on sub­t­le – or not-so-sub­t­le – variations.

Heln­wein has a long histo­ry of orches­tra­ting the­se ambi­guous sce­nes. As a teen, she would dress her bro­thers and friends in peri­od clot­hing and cos­tu­mes she found in her house, and pho­to­graph them trans­for­med into paro­chi­al school kids, Depres­si­on- era far­mers, Ellis Island immi­grants, and so on. Then, as now, the pic­tu­re that emer­ged would draw the view­er into that time and place, but the spe­ci­fic cir­cum­s­tan­ces remai­ned unkno­wa­ble. The­ma­ti­cal­ly rela­ted to the­se oil pas­tels are two films Heln­wein made in 2014, enti­t­led Cops and Nur­ses. The films – meant to be shown con­cur­r­ent­ly and with the same haun­ting, sus­pen­se­ful sound­track, com­po­sed by her bro­ther, Ali – pre­sent enig­ma­tic, dis­quie­ting sce­nes of mun­da­ne work­place inter­ac­tions, or the lack the­re­of. Each com­pri­sed of a sce­ne depic­ting 20 cops and 20 nur­ses, respec­tively, the films chal­len­ge gen­der ste­reo­ty­pes and the asso­cia­ted sym­bo­lisms. The­re is a cer­tain incon­grui­ty in the nur­ses ste­aling glan­ces at one ano­t­her as they silent­ly smo­ke in a hos­pi­tal room, or the utter pas­si­vi­ty of the cops as they drift through a pre­cinct while the music swells to sug­gest immi­nent doom or cli­max. With an anti­ci­pa­to­ry eye, we watch and wait to see a more deve­lo­ped nar­ra­ti­ve play out – a glim­mer of huma­ni­ty, an inter­ac­tion, or a tel­ling shift in posi­ti­on. But that result is unpre­dic­ta­ble, as the sto­ry resi­des in the viewer’s imagination.

In mathe­ma­tics, cha­os theo­ry posits that we can­not pre­dict what will hap­pen in a com­plex sys­tem, that even a minu­te chan­ge in the initi­al con­di­ti­ons can have dra­ma­tic effects on that sys­tem over time. Like­wi­se, in Helnwein’s Cha­os Theo­ry, com­plex emo­tio­nal and rela­tio­nal sys­tems reign. Heln­wein iso­la­tes the­se moments, cap­tu­ring sli­ces of life that are imbued with a sen­se of latent dra­ma about to unfold. The viewer’s inter­pre­ta­ti­on of the sce­ne alters the out­co­me with each new expe­ri­ence. Some­what as a result of her upbrin­ging in an artis­tic house­hold, Heln­wein has a par­ti­cu­lar sen­si­ti­vi­ty for mate­ri­als. It is through that ing­rai­ned sen­si­ti­vi­ty and under­stan­ding of the mul­ti­ple lay­ers her father pou­red intohis work that Heln­wein came to under­stand the com­plex sys­tems inherent in any one image or situa­ti­on, and the mul­ti­tu­de of pos­si­ble out­co­mes that may ari­se from such a chao­tic sys­tem. Heln­wein cho­se not to stu­dy art for­mal­ly, pre­fer­ring ins­tead to find her own voice. As she says, “I did­n’t want any inter­fe­rence, other than inspi­ra­ti­on from other works of art that I admi­re.” Having been sur­roun­ded by art and crea­ti­vi­ty from the begin­ning, she would have been hard-pres­sed to escape the artis­tic influ­ence of others. One artist Heln­wein gives a nod to – con­scious­ly or not – is Edward Hop­per. From the ambi­guous dyna­mics of the rela­ti­ons­hips to their sli­ce-of-life dra­ma, her films and oil pas­tels recall many of Hopper’s ico­nic mas­ter­works. The sub­ject mat­ter and moods for which he is renow­ned and their con­nec­tion to film noir are well estab­lis­hed. Heln­wein has also ack­now­led­ged the influ­ence of film noir, par­ti­cu­lar­ly its ligh­t­ing and the “ludi­crous ten­si­on that exists in some of tho­se sce­nes… I espe­cial­ly like it if I have no idea of the con­text.

This seri­es cele­bra­tes the vei­led com­ple­xi­ties of dai­ly life, con­nec­ting with uni­ver­sal truths to which we can all rela­te and drawing the view­er in as a par­ti­ci­pant. As Edward Hop­per once said, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm, and does not con­cern its­elf alo­ne with sti­mu­la­ting arran­ge­ments of color, form and design.” Heln­wein picks up the chal­len­ge of depic­ting that vast and varied realm, and her explo­ra­ti­ons will, no doubt, eli­cit count­less new possibilities.

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Carole Perry is the Artistic Director and Curator at Edward Hopper House in Nyack, NY. She previously worked as an independent curator and as an exhibition coordinator at the Guggenheim Museum. She earned a Master of Arts degree in art history from Hunter College in New York.

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