An alluring cocktail of mystery and nostalgia, Evelyna Helmer’s representational collages redirect us into a fragmented world of unanswered questions, entropy and isolation.
by Heather Zises
Optically striking, Evelyna Helmer’s multimedia tableaux are accumulations of collaged body parts, mystical animals, flowers, and paint. Through the process of collecting, assembling, sculpting and painting, she delivers a visual language in which symbols, icons and objects commingle in a super-flat atmosphere. Working with a variety of media including found images, oil, acrylic, ink, and charcoal, Helmer examines themes of nostalgia, mystery, memory and femininity with a poetic twist. Recognizable figurative elements draw the viewer into each work and bridge a sense of connectivity while saturated colors, skewed perspectives and exaggerated scale recalibrate reality into unsettling destinations. Cinematic and suspenseful, Helmer’s compositions disrupt and reinterpret common object meanings by allowing the familiar and arcane to converge.
Born and raised in Chicago, Helmer earned her BA in Art History from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, as well as post-graduate certificates in Photography, Fine Art and Horticulture. She currently lives and works in Sydney, Australia but frequently travels back to the States to work in her studios in Vero Beach, FL and Chicago, IL. Helmer’s background in studio art and art history strongly shaped her practice, which includes a deep knowledge for archival techniques and materials.
Influenced by Pop Art and advertising, she draws inspiration from artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Veja Celmans, and Giorgio Morandi. During her undergraduate studies, Helmer began her 15-year career as a fine art commercial photographer where she learned how to print and produce her own work. In addition to analog photography, the artist developed her work and process with other media including painting, sculpture, and works on paper. Helmer says that “only after completely understanding a medium can one express and play with the materials. Following that, I had a recent ‘explosion’ in the studio and have been creating nonstop with all kinds of materials and mediums!”
Helmer’s current series of assemblage collages are hinged upon the transitory object life of visual matter in our current age of image infatuation. Created in response to the pandemic and imposed self-isolation, the artist explores psychic space and dark corners of the mind. By referencing the unconscious and dreams, each work features quotidian objects that beg to be examined up close. “I find I have a freedom to be more playful, combining mediums in experimentation,” Helmer observes. As such, the artist appropriates imagery from both analog and digital archives to fuse personal history with collective history to disrupt and reinterpret meanings of the objects represented. The backgrounds of her collages are prepared in a spontaneous manner, not unlike the process of automatic writing. Composed imagery is then generated from a vast, personal archive of paper materials like magazines, newspapers, labels, maps and sales receipts. The result is a group of potent compositions that culminate into layers of Hopper-esque tension surrounding its objects.
Evidence of Helmer’s kinship with a camera is evidenced in her current series such that familiar depictions of objects and figures appear trapped in space, struggling to regain their focus in between crisp layers and atmospheric blurs. We see this visual device employed in Dream Rooms no. 53, Man with Feathers, in which a male torso is stuck in between a sticky bubblegum pink background and a bouquet of multicolored flames; in Dream Rooms no. 21, Woman Dreaming, the head of a faceless woman with a lustrous mass of blonde hair floats above an intricate marble room set against a blurry backdrop of black and white streaks; and again in Dream Rooms no. 10, Ambiguous Loss, in which a headless body of a nude woman clad in sheer pantyhose wades in a turbulent ocean looking toward an abbreviated horizon in which a freakishly large and dark pocked moon hangs too low in the sky.
Amongst Helmer’s poetic, cinematic spaces, familiar depictions become eerie and hover on the precipice of reality and illusion. Time collapses into pockets of stillness that are populated with impossibly proportioned imagery such as in Woman Leaving, in which an oversized fairy rides a tiny winged horse. The concept of masks and anonymity is ubiquitous as well (and does not go unnoticed in the age of COVID) in the form of flowers and mystical animals for human heads in Woman Dreaming, Dream Rooms no. 33, Woman with Rose, and Dream Rooms no. 3 Owl Mother.
Appropriating imagery that ranges from folklore to advertising, Helmer investigates from all angles the methods by which images are constructed, recycled and immortalized. Mining her photographic background, the artist reimagines the portrait, the still life, and the product shot through a personalized lens. References to Pop culture percolate amongst Helmer’s collages such as Dream Rooms no. 7, Sweater that recalls the song “Eyes Without A Face” by Billy Idol where oversized, kohl-rimmed eyes hover in a white cloud of smoke above a chunky white sweater and in Dream Rooms no. 1, Woman with Octopus that feels like a mash up between Ursula the sea witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid and The Beatles song “Octopus’s Garden” which depicts an octopus as the head of a woman floating in an oceanic garden.
Throughout Helmer’s collages, objects, and their significance are intentionally elliptical. The ordinary becomes extraordinary due to a powerful aura dwelling inside. Functioning like vessels of memory and experience, her objects take on an anthropomorphic quality such that they are reimagined personifications of those missing from our world. Furthermore, natural environments and phenomena become platforms for an elastic present and figures function as global citizens with seemingly universal skin tones as seen in Woman Dreaming and Woman with Octopus.
Another ongoing preoccupation in Helmer’s work is color. Working in concert with typified feminine hues, the artist favors a palette of pinks and purples, mauves and indigos. Pink holds particular importance in terms of its versatility and symbolism, depending on the cultural narrative and context. In Western tradition its meaning has shifted over time. Historically, pink used to be a man’s color and inadvertently became ascribed to women a symbol of submissiveness after World War II. During the war, pink triangle badges were used to identify gay men. When the war ended, women embraced pink and eventually annexed the color as a symbol of femininity. Post 1960, more recent interpretations of the color have been ascribed to gender neutrality and emotional connectedness. In viewing Helmer’s works as a whole, each collage delivers an optical punch with its psychological effects and inherent biases: how we see color and how marketing attempts to homogenize taste.
Oscillating from gradient backgrounds to saturated shapes, Helmer bucks convention where specific colors are applied throughout each work; skies become yellow in Dream Rooms no. 3 Owl Mother; classical ball gowns resemble cyanotypes in Dream Rooms no. 33 and skin becomes multi-tonal in Woman Dreaming.
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An alluring cocktail of mystery and nostalgia, Helmer’s representational collages redirect us into a fragmented world of unanswered questions, entropy and isolation.