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January 15 - March 1, 2008 at George Billis Gallery, Culver City

by Marlena Donohue

“Zigzag Light,” 2007, acrylic
on canvas, 96 X 72".

“Strings Attached,” 2007,
acrylic on canvas, 60 X 84".

“Prelude,” 2006, acrylic
on canvas, 48 x 60.

Bonita Helmer makes painterly abstraction one might call theosophical or metaphysical. Be prepared to be both cautious and won over in turn when you encounter the latest paintings.

Any artist working today invoking painterly abstraction and/or spirituality does so at their risk. Our suspicion of existential abstraction comes from being jaded by the squiggly trash dotting corporate corridors and the privileged, politicized legacy of Ab Ex. It does not seem to matter that even the most cynical among us (i.e. me) might do well to consider spirituality as we face a truly endangered ecology, globalized terror, rule by profit. It does not seem to matter that after thirty years of post-modern deconstruction, art has turned back on itself to re-embrace paint and canvas. It does not seem to matter that the origins of experimental art a century ago fore-fronted the philosophical and design idea that there might be a way in which plastic form communicates the extra-linguistic. We also want to forget that abstract mark making cum system of meaning sits at the core of wild metaphoric imagination, as well as all rule-based systems like science and language. We remain cautious.

Helmer is aware of this resistance but has doggedly pursued a way to express human and meta-human ideas using pure paint and color nonetheless. Internationally exhibited, a former student of François Gilot, Helmer is an accomplished draftsperson who can draw/paint things we recognize as real with ease. In spite of or perhaps because of this facility, she’s been working to develop an abstract language for painting for decades. Her sources are varied: meditation, study of Buddhism and Kabbalah, a lay fascination with quantum mechanics, as well as the Hubble images that come back to us from deepest space. It is an indication of our almost spontaneous discomfort with those words painterly abstraction and spirituality that one feels compelled to mention Helmer’s consummate draftsmanship and years of art study and teaching almost as a preamble to an encounter with the work.

It has been a mixed blessing that Helmer is such a natural colorist. Earlier work in exuberant yellows and magentas verged dangerously on the corporate/decorative (there are some older works that suffer from this in the show; concentrate your attention on the new large pieces). The good part is that Helmer has the courage to check artistic intent, effective communication against what is comfortable, familiar, saleable. The earlier works were so easily pretty that we lost the artist's desire to communicate to us the contractions and expansions, connective energy which both science and spiritualism tell us are at the base of the universe and our understanding of it (String Theory and cosmic consciousness start looking like neighbors even to serious physicists like Nigel Calder).

Helmer’s current works have grown in scale to make us feel as if we are viewing infinite deep space or witnessing some small cellular process projected on a screen and writ large. The connection between the inner and outer, corporeal and infinite are core themes. In works like the punning “There Are Strings,” (with its reference to consequences in all actions and String Theory's suggestion of a space-matter-energy matrix) we see indigo to grayish fields that look like they can expand in all directions. Inside these spaces, roiling spheres of pigment look like super novas, at once condensing rapidly and/or expanding at a tremendous velocity, leaving trails of energy, paint, glass, gesture, gases--you name it--in their wake.

However fluid/flowy and freely "expressive" the works appear to a quick glance, spend some time and notice that they are painstaking and planned. Helmer uses a mixture of water based acrylics and spray enamels allowed to strategically cure and crack at her precise behest; she works layer on layer of pigments and gloss medium to get surfaces that, in the best work, alternate between crusty and atmospheric, between calcareous and ephemeral.

The analogy is not far from the artist’s intent. She hangs out with space scientists who make available to her images from space exploration mostly seen at Cal Tech. She struggles through quantum physics and is very much interested in those conclusions that deep space and metaphysics inevitably bring us to in unison--ideas a German-Jewish pacifist patent clerk imagined and then proved mathematically to rock our world: the interchangeability of energy, matter and light; the arbitrariness of constructs like time and distance at the macro and micro levels; the crucial role played by a sentient awareness (that would be us) in all these constructs. And finally, how truly small this warring, hubris-filled planet is in the infinite scheme of things.

“There Are Strings,” 2006, acrylic on canvas, 42 x 108" (triptych).