New York

Ralph Helmick

57 STUX + Haller Gallery

Ralph Helmick initially explored heroic male figures pierced by laserlike striations, and his work was interpreted as classicism set to an MTV beat. But this New York debut, which expanded Helmick’s recent forays into the realm of the ardent female figure, made explicit his dual homage to carnal love and the grand traditions of figurative sculpture.

Several Boston shows, two years’ inclusion in the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art’s “Boston Now” exhibition, plus the celebrated Arthur Fiedler Memorial (a massive bust of the beloved maestro installed on the Charles River in summer 1984) won recognition for 34-year-old Helmick’s signature style—figures and heads formed from horizontal layers of wood, Masonite, or metal, laminated into vibrating, steplike contours.

This show comprised five variations on a single, nobly posed female torso. Schooled in the heyday of Minimalist shibboleths, Helmick received little figurative training; to achieve anatomical accuracy, he hired a model and taught himself the laborious task ofmodeling and casting a life-size figure, an ironically conservative twist on the individuating process.

But Helmick has not abandoned Minimalism; here it was but one of several sculptural moments he engaged. He adopts and deconstructs systemic geometric stacking, fracturing formalism in such works as Long Distance, 1986, where the figure composed of tiny bricks is spatially held in by an arched niche of bricks that rupture from architectural standards to abstract complexities (interestingly, Helmick once worked as a bricklayer’s assistant). The intense physicality of the figure coupled with its surreal disintegration leads to a strange amalgam of Aristide Maillol and René Magritte, with Rodinesque fragmentation added for good measure. Similarly, in Quantum Affection, 1986, the figure dissembles into Berniniesque clouds; and the wavy black supportive column of Capitoline Notte, 1986, addresses age-old controversies about the sculptural base with contemporary female-on-a-pedestal overtones. Concurrent to these issues of intellect, the figures comprise a paean to the body akin to spiritual awe; weight shifted in a graceful S curve, with erect nipples and sybaritic curves, they convey a lyrical libidinousness all the more surprising given the methodology and medium employed.

These impulses converge in the tour de force Lapse of Reason, 1986, which places the figure on a pedestal of a stack of books. These ascend into her relaxed left arm and seem to emanate from her truncated neck and raised right arm. Vertical movement countered by an underlying lateral thrust (what better analogous object for Helmick than the paginated book?) is paralleled by the confrontation/synthesis of flesh and reason, passion and letters. The incomplete caryatid and closed books suggest the limits of architectonic and Cartesian knowledge; Helmick’s achievement is the manifestation of the notion that in the act of becoming, erudition and rapture entwine.

Nancy Stapen