IN L.A.: Studio Visit With Mercedes Helnwein

Oct 05, 2013 - Nov 02, 2013Merry Karnowsky Gallery, Los Angeles

Mercedes Helnwein’s latest exhibition opens this upcoming Saturday, October 5, at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles, and for the occasion,  we were invited to stop by Helnwein's studio for a preview of what she has been working on for the past few months.

Merry Karnowsky Gallery is proud to present The Trouble With Dreams, a new exhibition by Mercedes Helnwein.  As is her custom, Helnwein uses bygone decades and cultures of the deep South and Midwest for inspiration. In this series, the artist delves poignantly into the realm of domestic mysteries by visually exploring the underbellies of small towns, living room noir, and the dangers of normality.

Helnwein attacks her stories from various angles and with a number of different media.  The portraits of young women are in her trademark thick black pencil -- facing the viewer without the distraction of much background, their expressions carrying unsettling hints of an unspoken narrative.  The watercolors in contrast are delicate in their pale, fragile color schemes.  These women and girls are portrayed in soft turquoise, pinks and flesh tones with a seemingly transparent quality that is only disturbed by the occasional explosion of bright magenta or orange leaking from their faces or dripping from their hair. Lastly, there are large-scale oil-pastel scenes based on vintage photographs found at flea-market sales. These are rendered in monochromatic grey, green and earthy tones with rare accents in red or pink. There’s a Southern gothic feel to these pastels; empty street scenes and forgotten family photographs impart a feeling of ghostliness, an immateriality that only otherwise exists in memories.

Despite the variety of styles and mediums, all of Helnwein’s works are united by their obscured or skewed perspectives – leaving the viewer in the dark about what exactly is occurring, or why. “I always like the idea of finding the ‘twilight zone’ in really mundane circumstances or scenes, in a living room where everything apparently seems normal, with its wallpapers and patterned curtains, its claustrophobic nick-knacks and portraits of family members – I can’t help thinking that this is a fake front to a far more interesting underbelly,” There are only ever hints to the underlying truths in these stories. Helnwein suggests there is no one central agency in the universe her work depicts. It seems instead that her subjects, ranging from teenagers to nurses to cops in vintage uniforms, are under the influence of supernatural agencies or perhaps simply impulses that are as dark as they are familiar. America’s take on religion plays some part too, although so subtly that it can be overlooked entirely. Jesus and the Devil, as well as the diversity of religious practice found in America, from snake handling, speaking in tongues all the way to the soul of African American spirituals, have laid a foundation with which the characters in her work might easily have had contact.

Helnwein’s exhibition is completed by a film installation.  With this exhibition, however, she expands drastically on her usually minimalistic films.  The Trouble with Dreams consists of two projections facing each other across a room.  A crowd of cops faces a crowd of nurses – both sides silently waiting for something to happen.  Set in a vague, past decade, somewhere between the 40s and 60s, the scenes represent the opposite of two equally uncomfortable worlds:  Law and Medicine.  Beautiful in their film-noir like artificiality, the two worlds face each other over thirty minutes with the sweat, smoke and tension of nothingness.

The film was produced by Stellascope with cinematography by Giovanni Ribisi.

Mercedes Helnwein’s “The Trouble With Dreams” opens this upcoming Saturday October 5th from 8-11 pm. This is a stunning and beautiful new body of work that you should definitely stop by and check out in person. We hope you enjoy the photos from our visit. —Amy Duran

Mercedes Helnwein
The Trouble With Dreams
Merry Karnowsky Gallery
Opens October 5, 2013 8-11pm