New York

Robert Helm

Edward Thorp Gallery

This was Robert Helm’s first solo exhibition in New York. Helm, who is in his middle 40s and lives in Pullman, Washington, can be characterized as an accomplished artist who makes no concessions to New York attitudes or styles. If anything, his work—both its concerns and the way it’s made—can be seen as antithetical to New York’s declamations of the end of Modernism, self-consciousness, notions of grand themes, and heroic and antiheroic attitudes.

Helm is both a painter and a craftsman. Each of the pieces in the exhibition combines inlaid wood and painted images in an inventive trompe l’oeil manner and incorporates an intricate, inlaid wood frame, which is sometimes arched, like a medieval window. Consequently, the viewer is always trying to distinguish the painted from the “real,” examining the works by moving from a comfortable distance away to up close in order to do so. This deliberate ambiguity is a central aspect of the artist’s subject matter and contributes much to its stark, dreamlike atmosphere.

A box or houselike structure and a mirror are among the recurring images. In Word by Word, 1987, Helm constructs an improbable, bipartite windowless structure perched on a barren promontory overlooking a body of water. The little buildings right half, of actual inlaid wood, gives the appearance of being constructed of wood planking, while the left half is painted to look as if it were made of brick. A leafless tree in the foreground coincides with the boundary line that demarcates the two halves. By forming the seam between these two contiguous “realities,” the painted sapling exaggerates the impossibility of the joining, while formally uniting them. At the same time, the context for this “three-dimensional” structure is a landscape painted in two-point perspective. Improbability leads to improbability, and yet everything is joined smoothly together.

In Helm’s hands style has become an instrument capable of revealing the world of materials and the world of perception, and their mysterious interrelationship. It is a dualism that artists such as Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, and Jasper Johns have also addressed. Writers have pointed out Helm’s affinities with René Magritte, Joseph Cornell, and John F. Peto. One can also link him to such early Renaissance painters as Giotto and Sassetta, as well as to the Hudson River School. However, it seems to me that Helm’s extremely sophisticated work, its exquisite coupling of formal means and imaginative capacity, is solely his own. At a time when most artists seem to be adhering to one stylistic movement or another, this artist embodies an independent spirit.

John Yau