New York

Helene Aylon

Betty Parsons Gallery and Susan Caldwell Gallery

Helene Aylon designates her recent work as Paintings that Change in Time. All paintings, like everything else, change in time, but Aylon is speeding up one process (of universal material deterioration) as she slows and extends another, the process of completion by which a work of art is made. Aylon works oil, dyes and paint into the back of large sheets of treated paper, until the materials start to penetrate the front surface. The sheets are then sealed in plexiglass and hung on the wall, where the process of seepage and cracking continues, ad infinitum. Her paintings never complete themselves, I suppose, until they deteriorate. The work represents a strange amalgam, the absorption, as it were, into painting of ideas and processes previously thought to threaten its existence. (One thinks of Robert Smithson’s Earthworks, of Alan Sonfist’s mold and crystals developing in sealed plexi-glass boxes and of Dorothea Rockburne’s use of oil on cardboard.) But with Aylon, you realize that every material and process under the sun can, potentially, be used to achieve the most deadeningly familiar kind of pictorialism.

Yet her actual results are varied and often quite beautiful. Despite all she leaves to chance and to the natural tendencies of her materials, she has developed her own special kind of control, as do most artists who start out with an unconventional technique. She achieves—or her paintings are currently achieving—a pleasing variety of rich brown and beige tones, lines, cracks, ripples and Rorschachian stains. Some, like Slowly Drawing, are graphically delicate. In others, dark, dramatic stains penetrate across the field of paper, like a storm moving down the side of a mountain, and, also, like an Oriental landscape. Occasionally stains are surprisingly organized, dividing the ground into regular horizontal or vertical areas (at least for the time being). And in some of the larger works, often consisting of three or four panels, dark, separate stains are emerging, isolated by great expanses of unaffected paper—something like the small areas of bright color breaking through a dark Clyfford Still. The references go zinging back and forth: Oriental art, Abstract Expressionism, cave paintings, commercial waste observed during a walk through SoHo, but her results are far less strong than her references. Although Aylon’s technique is somewhat unusual, the familiarity of her results leaves the work without the clear, taut connection of necessity between the method and the image. Both are vague; these paintings could have been made any number of ways.

Like all artists, she relinquishes control over her work, only she just does it sooner; she acknowledges her powerlessness more obviously than other artists. But this is a gesture that finally seems falsely modest, irresponsible and a little pretentious. Freeing her art to complete itself in the passage of time seems like a self-effacing idea, but it actually elevates the artist to the passive omnipotence of nature itself. Rather than attempting to give the viewer a concentrated experience, intense enough to stop time for an instant, Aylon presumes to move parallel to time; and yet this process tells us nothing we don’t already know.

Roberta Smith