New York

Sophie von Hellermann

For a show that took its cues from Albert Einstein, German painter Sophie von Hellermann’s first solo exhibition in New York wore its mantle lightly. Staged on the occasion of the hundred-year anniversary of the watershed formulation of E=mc2, “Goddess in the Doorway” exuded a gravity that, for all its pretense to science, was really more about waking dreams and kinesthetic apparitions than postulated equations. In von Hellermann’s large-scale, candy-color acrylics, figures hover unmoored against unprimed canvas, the paint alternately seeping into the weave of the support and threatening to evaporate from its surface. The medium appears etiolated and just barely contained in coy, casual gestures of pellucid consciousness.

In these new works, confusions of light, time, and space abound, and nothing is what it seems. If Einstein showed matter and energy to be interconvertible, so that a small amount of mass may yield tremendous energy, von Hellermann’s economical technique exploits the possibilities of a constrained explosiveness. But hers is a play of narrative as much as of process, and the theories that ostensibly subtend each image—and often provide its fancifully depicted subjects—are romantically elaborated or wholly improvised, and, at their best, epiphanic.

In Billiard (all works 2005), von Hellermann offers a vision of the traditional metaphor of classical physics via a lugubrious ground of phosphorescent lime and baize green washes on which two figures drift amid primary-color balls that also resemble asteroids or sperm. Good Space Girl features a blonde woman in an emerald dress suspended within a space capsule, oblivious to the bottle of champagne flying free from her purse. Einstein himself appears in other pieces: aboard a schooner which is displaced by a ghostly cohort encroaching in a speedboat in Tinnef (Sailing Boat); enraptured, eyes closed, while playing the violin in Dancing in the Kitchen with You; and contemplating a sulfurous figure of apocalyptic light in Einstein 1905 (a diptych in which this primary image is wryly juxtaposed with a diminutive companion panel of an elephant).

Continuity for von Hellermann isn’t seamless or chronological. It is disjointed, arbitrary, and episodic, as in the case of Space Time Continuum–New York Shire. Here, an undulating band weaves a mustard-color taxi, a redbrick façade, and a pair of ethereal lovers into an oddly resonant mélange of historical scenes from Victorian England to the present. This coiled synchronicity implies nothing so much as a rabbit hole to a looking-glass world replete with distortions of scale and untethered narrative.

Von Hellermann’s recent work thus suggests another surreal passage born of the ludic dimensions of automatism and the anarchic fantasies it abets. Commenting on Alice in Wonderland, critic Roger Henkle reminds us that Lewis Carroll developed his own literary talents through play, beginning as a child by writing nonsense for his own and his siblings’ amusement. “As he acquired a special, self-conscious skill at it,” Henkle recounts, “his play developed into an art—but an art that retained its child’s play quality.” This play, he continues, productively offers relief from “officious moralizing.” Von Hellermann’s fragmentary netherland operates in a similar way, invoking Jefferson Airplane as much as Carroll (or even Einstein). These combinations grow “curiouser and curiouser,” raucously undermining pretensions to seriousness without tipping over into flippancy, winkingly suggesting that levity is too often underrated.

Suzanne Hudson