New York

Adam Helms

Despite the increasing visibility of young artists engaged with the deleterious side of contemporary American culture—whether parsing subcultural responses to it or directly expressing political grievances with it—relatively few of them engage deeply with specific moments in this country’s history. Contemporary artistic accounts can make it seem as if the upheavals of the 1960s were a Big Bang, before which nothing here existed: no hardscrabble Puritanism, no founding-father solidarity, no Transcendentalism, no “patriotic gore,” no international projection of power through the first half of the last century, to cite just a few chapters from the American annals to which artists rarely look for inspiration. Contemporary artists’ tendency to avoid this history may partly explain why recent exhibitions like “The Uncertain States of America” and “USA Today” have seemed much more “contemporary” than specifically “American.”

This exhibition, Adam Helms’s New York solo debut, look a tentative step toward redressing this problem. It gathered together but did not intermingle two of his preoccupations: the visual iconography of guerrilla insurrection and the symbolism of the American West’s vast open spaces. One first encountered a series of nine double-sided silk-screen portraits on vellum, each depicting a silvery gray figure masked by a pool of black ink vaguely resembling a balaclava or hood. Details of dress, and the works’ titles, located these enigmatic, faintly sinister figures in various times and places: Grozny, the Chechen capital and recent site of much anti-Russian paramilitary activity; the Santa Fe trail; Zarqa, Jordan. One is a Confederate soldier photographed by Mathew Brady in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1865.

Helms’s uniform translation of these images, while perhaps highlighting loose formal parallels in the ways the rebels presented themselves (or were depicted postmortem), glosses over significant differences in their aims and methods. It is an omission that seems too startling to be accidental, yet there is no acknowledgment of it in the work. Helms seems to neglect the all-important kicker of Jasper Johns’s famous dictum: “Take an object. Do something with it. Do something else with it.” At a moment when terms like “counterinsurgency” and “asymmetrical warfare” are bandied about in the news media, an artist must do more than simply “survey and document” (to borrow words from an earlier Helms artist’s statement) radical political groups. The series seems a step backward from his imaginative “New Frontier Army” drawings (2004–2006).

In a second room, Helms presented three large, finely crafted charcoal drawings and two freestanding structures, which the exhibition checklist connects in a variety of ways. One drawing, a mountain view that seems to aim for a tempestuous sublime (the press release quotes Cormac McCarthy), is paired with a jerry-built plywood lookout tower dotted with evidence of previous inhabitants, from postcards to a cowhide to ink-jet prints featuring images of soldiers. (A second drawing seems to depict a similar structure in situ.) Across the room stood a stuffed buffalo, partially obscured by a plywood structure with a narrow horizontal slit—as if the beast were in a pillbox bunker. The animal’s presence in the gallery is uncanny, yet the rationale behind its peekaboo presentation remains inscrutable. Are man (in the watchtower) and beast (a synecdoche for nature) squaring off? If Helms’s exploration of the guerrilla archetype is so well defined as to be overdetermined, at least his nascent interest in the mythology of the American West is still flexible enough to allow for further exploration and refinement.

Brian Sholis