Mercedes Helnwein's girls have secrets. Or rather more of a desperate tendency to cover certain things up, according to their creator.
Eternally frozen in breathless moments, speaking only through their expressive eyes and raised chins, they are forever caught in inscrutable gestures. Mysterious, disdainful, pretty and precocious, they dare the viewer to tell their stories for them. Which is only fitting, as Helnwein is also an accomplished writer, and both narrative and character are ever-present in her work.
Her latest collection, "Temptation to Be Good" challenges the viewer to contemplate just what darkness such polished lovely creatures might carry that would require redemption.
"The images are not portraits," she explains. "They are fictional characters, and in fact the expressions and moods these girls have in my drawings make them completely different from the models I use. They really do become different people on the paper. There are always things going on in my head when I work... while I'm drawing I might be thinking of a story and when I'm writing I might be thinking of visuals."
Easy Company, 2010, 22 x 30 inches, Black pencil on paper ©Mercedes Helnwein. Courtesy of the artist.
Missouri II, 2010, 30 x 22 inches, Black pencil on paper ©Mercedes Helnwein. Courtesy of the artist.
Much like her drawings, Helnwein herself is hesitant to give too much away. With her own enigmatic nature and vintage cinematic looks (flaming red hair, ruby lips, a wicked flair for costume), she could easily be the clever ringleader of her intriguing cast of characters. When asked where her sense of mystery comes from, she answers: "I guess from never wanting to accidentally say too much. I think it's very easy to kill something by explaining every part of it."
photo by Vivian Gray ©Mercedes Helnwein. Courtesy of the artist.
Her extraordinary upbringing could inspire its own mystery-girl novel: Born in Vienna, Austria, and raised in an Irish castle, she is the daughter of famed Austrian-Irish artist Gottfried Helnwein. As children, she and her brothers, Cyril, Ali, and Wolfgang Amadeus, were often models for their father's gothic and controversial work.
"Growing up with his artwork always around has definitely influenced me," she explains. "At each age I could look at his work and take it in differently- the older I got, the more layers I think I understood, but also the more appreciative I became of his different techniques. His early ink drawings and etchings really fascinated me the most when I was around sixteen and started drawing more seriously. It was his ink drawings and Robert Crumb's drawings that were my initial inspirations. I started drawing only with ink and that was really the beginning of my professional career."
Sophisticated inspirations for this new work reflect themes of alienation and range from Steinbeck, to the underworld hobo journey of Jack Black in "You Can't Win," to the Delta Blues: "The Delta blues have always played a big part in my life. I came across them in my early teens, and it was as though something finally made sense. I got all that self-confidence back that is so easy to loose as a teenager, and I no longer had to try and like my age-appropriate culture. Listening to Blind Willie McTell for the first time I was in shock -- I didn't know that you could listen to music and not feel like someone is trying to sell you some kind of new deodorant brand. This was the most honest any music had ever been to me. There was no sales pitch, nothing sticky. So, in a way, that music became pretty much the basis of everything that mattered artistically to me. It's still the foundation."
Film stills ©Mercedes Helnwein. Courtesy of the artist.
Music also plays a larger role as brother Ali Helnwein has composed classically haunting music for an accompanying video projection, which will provide further clues to her mysterious characters. Musician Beck, for whom she has previously contributed album art, will be hosting. She finds his music poetic, particularly the song "Walls," which she says made "her insides drop south" the first time she heard it. "I felt like he had touched some ineffable theme that is the core of what I wanted my exhibition to be about." In it he croons:
Some days we get a thrill in our brains
Some days it turns into malaise
You see your face in the veneer
Reflected on the surface of fear
Because you know that we're better than that
But some days we're worse than you can image
And how am I supposed to live with that
With all these train wrecks coming at random
Appropriate words for a few shady tales.
"Temptation to Be Good" opens at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, Saturday, November 13, 2010, 8-11pm, 170 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA. 90036
Anne B. Kelly is an artist and the founder of femalepersuasion.net
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