Helen Altman

Dunn and Brown Contemporary

Helen Altman’s recent show “My Best Eggs” included fifteen “torch” drawings of animals ranging from pandas and lions to sad-sack dogs and mules. Her technique, developed several years ago, involves scorching marks into water-soaked paper with a propane torch, like toasting the sugar crust of a crème brûlée. It is an unforgiving way to work: The drawings must be finished quickly, before the paper dries and ignites. Erasures and touch-ups are impossible. Yet Altman manages to produce lush chiaroscuro renderings this way. The warm ochers and deep burnt siennas of the toasted paper play off the white ground that remains around the figure, uncannily asserting the subjects’ untamed spontaneity with surprising realism. But beyond that, she conjures a tone of utter vulnerability in the way the isolated creatures float in the contextless space of the paper.

Along with her drawings, Altman exhibited six ink-jet prints on canvas stitched to quilted blankets like those used by moving companies. She has painted directly on such blankets in the past, capitalizing on the ideas of rootlessness and leaving home they imply, but these recent pieces were more cleanly designed and elegant than the earlier work The digital prints here each derived from a secondhand image of some “natural” subject—a storm at sea, an evergreen tree, a forest fire—whose multiple layers of reproduction highlighted its remove from nature. In Colorado Blue Spruce, 2001, a color copy of the eponymous tree complete with a caption indicating that it is “frequent in cultivation” is centered on a quilted fabric field commercially printed with ’70s-style blue and green flowers. The manifold layers of nonnatural references (banal cartoon blossoms, domesticated plant species) and materials (synthetic ink, false colors, digitally reproduced and mass-produced imagery) overwhelm all pretense of connecting to nature. Like blankets, the conceptual systems that make such images necessary insulate us from the material reality of nature.

Stand, 2001, eight quilt-covered dining-room chairs bearing a fragmented ink-jet mural of zebras at a watering hole, imported this idea into a more clearly domestic situation. The images appear only on the backs of the chairs, so that one must turn away from them to be seated. (Hence the title, at least in part.) The animals’ protective patterning was echoed in several of the ink-jet paintings that incorporate commercially printed camouflage. For Altman the adaptation of generic vegetation imagery on clothing for soldiers and hunters is yet another culturally loaded example of human imitation of nature, like flower patterns and illustrations from a bestiary. She activates these elements with a collagist’s wit reminiscent of Rauschenberg.

“Nature,” wrote Raymond Williams in his cultural lexicon Keywords, “is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” For a social critic like Williams, nature always remained a cultural concept. For Altman, the word holds a set of extrasocial references that, as limited by human incursions as they surely are, live on in cultural expressions as diverse as Kmart fabric patterns, suburban lawns, and nature guides.

Michael Odom