Sophie von Hellermann, Urania, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 74 3⁄4".

Sophie von Hellermann, Urania, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 74 3⁄4".

Sophie von Hellermann

Sophie von Hellermann’s exhibition “Swirls and Circles” was like a trip to a funfair. Like the ghost house or the freak show, her large, brightly colored canvases were fictions sustained not by their credibility but, quite the opposite, by their total fancy and one’s willingness to indulge it. There were centaurs, a sleeping beauty, and women in yellow hovering around a giant eye, everything wrapped in pastel hues and fluorescent flashes. These apparitions were easy to get into and hard to hold on to.

In all the paintings, but especially in the larger, more elaborate compositions such as Urania and Timeless (all works 2019), human figures—and sometimes objects, such as a pair of glasses or a clock—are formed by the same painterly gestures as their abstract surroundings: von Hellermann’s various spirals and curves. This made for a plane of dissolved and dissolving boundaries, a spaciousness that could be read as a lack of substance, for within this blurry space there was not much complexity or ambivalence to relate to; not much resistance, just more space. But content is not the logic of the funfair. Von Hellermann’s paintings are not illustrations or even interpretations of the world we know but extravagant translations of it—a different matter entirely.

Ghost Ride is a purple void more than ten feet long that, I was told in the gallery, the artist painted in response to Brexit. Born in Germany but based in the UK for decades, von Hellermann landed herself in the thick of a political farce. The painting shows a roller coaster looping across a lilac ground with a sharp orange sun at its center as gestures of white make up a Halloween-style skeleton surfing. This is the kind of dime-store horror that thrills but doesn’t frighten, a nightmare so contrived there’s no need to wake up. The generous internal dimensions of von Hellermann’s painterly fiction left room for such distance: We could take everything as pageantry without consequence.

This made Ghost Ride not dissimilar to the other works in “Swirls and Circles,” which were likely sourced from less grim real-life material. Im Augenblick (1) and Im Augenblick (2) stage a pun on the German word for moment, Augenblick, literally the glance of an eye. Frenzied exchanges whirl around the eye sitting passively in each painting’s center. It is possible to simply watch the moment pass, von Hellermann seems to say, safe inside the carriage of a fair ride. In this world, all’s well that ends well—as rides tend to do.

Of course, in the real world no one ever really wins, and trauma always lingers. In von Hellermann’s depiction, Urania (in antiquity the muse of astronomy) is furnished not with the usual rod and globe but with a painter’s brush. She makes a mesmerizing swirl of blue and red, a trance-induced relief from our awareness of the boundaries of the painting’s fiction, just beyond the edge of the canvas. In a set of works without much of a rub, this creeping awareness of the outside might just be it. Isle of Skye, the smallest canvas in the exhibition, shows an ordinary girl with mousy hair and jeans framed by a fingernail, perhaps, or an airplane window; there are none of Urania’s purple locks blowing at the universe here. Rather, she evokes a sense of exhaustion and what might be the key funfair experience: the weary ride home.