Critics’ Picks

Patrice Aphrodite Helmar, Nellie at the Arctic, 2017, silver gelatin print, 8 x 10".

New York

Patrice Aphrodite Helmar

Ortega y Gasset Projects
363 Third Avenue
February 9–April 28, 2019

The title of Patrice Aphrodite Helmar’s exhibition here, “Feeling Good About Me,” comes from a small volume of Christian propaganda for youngsters, first printed in 1970. (Two copies of it are included in the show as a sculptural element.) Helmar’s take on what it means to “feel good” about oneself is different from the guide’s. Her work retains the optimism of the book’s title but jettisons its cynical supposition that poor and working-class folks can flourish so long as they avoid certain vices, such as drugs, booze, premarital sex, and, unsurprisingly, homosexuality. In Helmar’s starkly beautiful photographs and videos, we see people of various stripes engaged in everyday life, often hanging out in or around bars close to home.

In the gallery, a jukebox—free to use and boasting a full roster of soulful tunes—sits across from a small image of the artist’s cousin leaning against a similar jukebox at a bar in their hometown of Juneau, Alaska (Nellie at the Arctic, 2017). The space is outfitted with swathes of wood paneling, which accentuates the show’s plainspoken vibe and brings us into Helmar’s photographs of Alaskan home interiors that are small-town aspirational in a way the mainstream art world misunderstands, or outright mocks.

Allison, 2019, is a female nude, photographed in New Orleans. The scene could be something straight out of E.J. Bellocq’s early-twentieth-century images of the city’s femmes de nuit. But printed snapshot-size and framed like a family keepsake, it radiates a tenderness absent from Bellocq’s soft erotica. Not that Helmar is a sentimentalist: On the contrary, her photographs crystallize an impulse to condense experience and a quality of living into an instant of gazing. The pictures, like their subjects, are resilient and tough it out.