September 7, 2015, Artist Profiles
Bonita Helmer: Life, the Universe, and Everything
By Shana Nys Dambrot Wed, Sep 09, 2015
“In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature.”
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” --Walt Whitman
Painter Bonita Helmer finds it comforting to study outer space. She talks about science in the way only an artist can -- exalting its mysteries, delighting in the rhyme schemes of molecular and the galactic poetry, making much of the influence of science on art, and putting her philosophy of wonderment to the task of returning the favor.
Conceptually, Helmer engages with high-level scientific theories, especially in what she sees as the related disciplines of space exploration, particle physics, and the psyche. Visually, she is attracted to naturally occurring and theoretical forms and structures that lend themselves to gestural abstract painting. She refers to the “repeating purity of the supernova,” and delights in the fact, confirmed to her by the scientists she keeps company with, that when it comes to subatomic, theoretical particles, “no one really knows what it looks like!” This freedom to “make it all up” has resulted in a prolific body of work which, while demonstrably abstract, is also both representational and pictorial. Though claiming an esoteric dimension, in a literal sense, these works depict real things and places which are in themselves abstract, and sometimes even invisible.
For all these reasons, Helmer’s nano-celestial paintings can sometimes appear ambiguous, quixotic in the way their particulate clouds amass and centers of gravity shift. This is reflective of Helmer’s perpetual curiosity -- both her scientific gift for being at ease with the unknowable and her art historical experimentation with the active properties of material and surface. Her style, though reminiscent of studio movements like Ab Ex or Light & Space, is less about adherence to those operations, and more about what she was required in service of her subject.
Space is both a symbol of human ambition and an idea about existence. We gaze upon its dark expanse from earth and see that it is full of stars, yet we think of it as empty. We examine its depths up close with the aid of technology and marvel at the riot of color and tumult of its explosions. We begin to see that its blackness is so much more than black. As evoked in the allover treatments of Helmer’s canvases, space is alive with color -- fuchsia, azure, blood orange, indigo, key lime, chrysanthemum, mauve, bone white, poppy red. Meteors are rough, dirty, rocky, primordial places with speckled, whipped, cracked, topographical, palimpsestic, shimmering, haloed textures. In the balanced asymmetry of her compositions Helmer resolves the harmonious discord of self-determining fractal impulses by recreating the conditions that produce them in her studio. She pours, sprays, brushes, and starts over, guiding or anticipating the behavior of her materials but allowing for an essentially undirected organic animation.
Her addition of anomalous hard-edge shapes, right angles, and straight lines represent geometry and architecture -- inventions of man, emblems of science and reason that exist in opposition to uncontained forces, contextualizing if not containing the chaos Helmer celebrates. These elements also speak to humanity’s irresistible, atavistic urge to assign meaning and recognize patterns. Call it the Rorschach impulse, Helmer encourages it. In her view people are free to see whatever they see. The more they recognize -- bodily fluids, ocean tides, flowers, faces, volcanoes, earth viewed from space, lichen, moss, mica, oil slicks, painter’s paints -- the more they prove Helmer’s theory that the structural rules of existence are fungible, that all matter is energy, and all energy is connected.