Eric Helvie: Heroically Intricate
Ten years ago Eric Helvie was a student in Indiana, soon to graduate from a culturally dissociated art program that was governed by conservative Midwestern values. He was twenty-two, married, and his wife was about to give birth to their first child. For a man on track to become a prominent painter in New York City, his are not customary credentials. But when you more deeply assess his trajectory, including a snapshot of this one moment in time — coming to grips with adult responsibilities at a young age while balancing his clear sense of inner purpose against his frustration with the school’s disconnect from the professional art world — Helvie’s impending success is no mystery. For one, he’s smart. And not in a slight way. Within minutes of beginning our conversation, sitting casually in his spacious, supremely tidy studio — the walls lined with massive, photorealistic paintings of World War II battleships cutting vertically through sideways-turned oceans — I’m caught off guard by the depth of his intelligence. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, however. To gain a deeper sense of Helvie’s trajectory we must first step back, peering into the formative years of his childhood.
Helvie was nine when his parents moved the family from cozy Portland, Oregon to tumultuous South Africa where they offered humanitarian relief services. There he was enrolled in a strict school with an all-white roster of students and an “apartheid-esque” faculty. Picture uniforms comprised of knee-high socks, leather shoes, kaki shorts, and a kaki shirt with the school insignia sown into the breast. Imagine rows of children in a school courtyard synchronously clicking their heels while saluting the South African flag. Into that framework insert a publicly educated American kid who likes to draw and is too young to comprehend the political and social history underlying such an oppressive atmosphere. Adapting to his new reality was jarring, to say the least. But Helvie was a competitive gymnast: discipline was nothing new. More stark were the methods employed. “I had this Afrikaans coach who would carry this stick around and whack you while you were doing routines, if your toes weren’t pointed or something. It was this incredibly military-level structure applied to my early childhood. In every way, now that I think about it.” Helvie competed until he was fourteen, when a back injury forced him to quit shortly after winning the national title for his age group.
That’s when Helvie applied his discipline and passion to painting. “The art there was actually great. Really good. I lived in the Transvaal but then we moved to a more British province and I went from that really strict Afrikaans school to a British school. It was still really strict but it was more open to art and they had a British system of art … basically what Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon would have gone through; appreciation for the figure, very rigorous drawing classes, and really, really focused art history,” looking me in the eye at the mention of art history. “I went to that school when I was fifteen and by the time I was sixteen I realized that I wanted to do that.” To be a painter.
Also at the age of fifteen: Helvie met his wife. He met her during a brief stay in Indianapolis and they dated long distance for three years while he completed his schooling in South Africa. Silently comparing his against my own mental condition in high school, my jaw is fairly slack when I ask how he managed an inter-continental relationship at the tender age of sixteen. “That’s when I was painting a lot,” is his response. “It was kind of a good thing because I was like, ‘Well, all I want to do is paint, so, you know, I don’t have to worry about girls.’” I deeply and sincerely love this answer, and ask if he had been mature for his age.
“I just had a very unwavering sense of focus and purpose. I had no desire to fuck around with any other stuff that would complicate my life, or add any emotional turmoil.” (I’m thirty-nine and I’m still kind of working on that one.) “It’s weird because now that I think back it wasn’t like me saying, ‘Oh I need a sense of directness and focus and so I’m going to make this relationship work.’ It was really true love, or whatever you want to call it. We still love each other. We’re actually friends. We like each other. We hang out. And we just happened to have met when we were fifteen-years-old.” Indeed.
I circle back, asking whether his education in art history was important to his work. “Yeah, it’s never left me and it’s been the basis of everything. It’s very egotistical and narcissistic to think that you don’t need an understanding of history to do what you need to do. Because you learn so much from that lineage. And then if you understand that your place is in that lineage it has a humbling effect on you. It also allows you to create with that sense of smallness — how small you are in relation to the whole deal. I mean, that’s like coming to grips with death. It’s just a reality. Once you come to grips with the fact that you’re going to die, you’re able to live more fully. I feel that once you come to grips with the fact that there’s a huge amount of art history behind you and on top of you and around you, then, all of a sudden, you are able to create more freely, or to create more powerfully.”
I agree. Why would you say that?
“Well, you can predict the future. You have this in-depth knowledge of the past and cycles of the past and you can apply that framework to what’s going on in reality and see how these cyclical events are continuing. I don’t think it’s very possible to say you can take today and compare it to a moment in history when a certain type of art was being made, and then sort of draw conclusions from that. You don’t want to break it down to a science because you want to leave room for organic occurrences and whatever — love and art and all that stuff. Spiritualness in general… But you can at least have something to hold on to. Rather than you versus the void. To me that’s the worst place that an artist can be, this sort of emptiness. And I don’t mean emptiness like Agnes Martin and emptiness where she was emptying herself in this zen-like state. I think she was in combat with conceptual art and I don’t mean that. I mean self-centeredness. Or this idea that I’m new and everything I do is going to be totally original. I’ve come to a point where I have no respect for this idea of originality. I think that what seems like originality is just a very obscure idea that’s been brought back and refreshed.”
There was much more than art history in Helvie’s words. There was clarity. He knows who he is and where he fits, and, partially due to this deep understanding of art history, he knows why. He knows why he is here doing what he does — creating beautiful objects of cultural significance. Art history is deeply intertwined with his understanding of himself as a distinct identity. One among a teaming sea of other distinct identities, who, when taken as a whole, become much less distinct. He and I are similar in our historical emphasis. This long-view context is embedded in our psyches. I’ve arrived in New York following a two-year plunge into the writings of Marx and Foucault, among a broad catalog of other critical theorists. I emerged from this plunge as a much more humble, grounded, and focused human being. When Helvie draws the link between narcissism and a lack of historical perspective, I know exactly what he means. And I know why. I ask if he remembers any specific moments in which he gained a clear sense of who he is or what he’s about, adding that he has obviously put much time into contemplation.
“Well, when I was sixteen I knew I wanted to be a painter — that was a very clear moment. I didn’t know what kind of painter I wanted to be, so I went through a lot of phases. A lot of cathartic work. And a lot of my ideas worked themselves out in the studio — just physically. Not necessarily me thinking and reading. Just me coming to the studio and working a lot. And I think it’s interesting because painting does that. You know, it’s physical labor; in the physical world being able to work out concepts and ideas. Some people do it in a sketchbook but painters do it in three dimensional space. They are moving paintings around. They’re putting things on the floor, picking things up… You’re actually physically altering reality in a sort of confined environment. I’ve gotten to the point where I… You don’t let everyone into your studio or you don’t let people fuck up your studio because it’s essentially letting people into the physical manifestation of your brain.” (His brain is extremely clean and well ordered.) “An artist moving paintings around the studio or hanging things on the wall or taking things down or turning a canvas to the wall or turning it back or painting over something… These are all physical manifestations of stream of consciousness ideas or fluid thought.”
You’re working through these—
“Yeah, physically. And I think that idea only came when I moved to New York. When space became very defined. Because that’s one thing New York does. It really does define space for you. When you are living in the Midwest or in South Africa there’s just this surplus of space. You don’t really have this sense of ownership of space like you do in New York where you know the boundaries of your reality. So, when I first moved to New York I think that was the other moment where I was like, ‘Ok, the studio is precious, it’s the physical manifestation of my brain and everything I do in the studio means something — down to the smallest thing, whether I sweep the floor, or not.’ And these are things we only really understand by spending a lot of time in the studio, and then also researching other artists.” (Or, maybe by becoming a Buddhist monk in the Himalayas.)
With this he ties it all together: who, what, where, when, and why. Exploring his inner depths through physical representations beautifully executed in a private space, day in and day out, because he’s a painter among a long lineage of other painters who have done likewise. It is not romantic or easy or daydreamy. It is work that goes largely unacknowledged and is mostly uncompensated for. Hard work — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Doing this work is Helvie’s contribution. In speaking with me about his life and his work, without necessarily recognizing it, he pinpoints the nexus of why art is such a critical contribution to society. It always has been — lurking in the fluid, shifting convergences of beauty, self, and time.
Does it feel almost meditative when you spend an entire day working on a six-inch square of your painting?
“Sometimes. But sometimes it feels painful as f—-.” He stops himself before finishing the word. “Yeah, just like, you feel really bad.”
Like you’re cleaning the floor with a toothbrush or something?
“Yeah, exactly. And it’s hard to make these types of paintings in New York City when you’re running out of money and this city is moving at the pace that it moves. Because you’re basically painting really slowly while everyone’s rushing and cabs are honking and you know that your bank account is diminishing. You want to paint faster but you can’t, so there’s that big tension. You feel like you’re walking against the crowd.”
So, in addition to just the risk of breaking out on your own it’s the seven months of work going into it, because of the intricate nature of your work?
“Yeah. And in New York, you know how it is. If money’s not coming in that’s a stress in and of itself, because money isn’t coming in but you’re always spending. To go for seven months with this idea of, ‘Well, nothing is probably going to come in while I’m in my studio making this stuff…’ You feel very vulnerable. But I do have to say: I don’t have any feelings of doubt or worry about the work itself.” I’m new to Helvie and his work and I don’t doubt either.
Two years after completing art school Helvie and his wife moved to New York with their infant son. Moving to the city was his best chance to survive as an artist. With few connections and almost no money they crashed in a friend’s cigarette-scented studio, sleeping on a mattress in the loft while their son slept in a tiny bed down below. He applied for over a hundred jobs or internships posted on the New York Foundation for the Arts’ classifieds before landing an unpaid internship with painter Paul Jacobsen — an artist who happened to be supplementing his income by working freelance for Rudolf Stingel. Liking Helvie and his style, Jacobsen began to offer compensation after a few months. Helvie was soon collaborating with Jacobsen on Stingel’s freelance assignments — not simply serving as an assistant on Jacobsen’s own work. In 2009, after the financial sector’s money games imploded and the resulting recession made it virtually impossible to survive as an emerging artist, Stingel invited both young painters into his studio — essentially sheltering them from the storm. Two years later Jacobsen resigned in order to pursue his own career and Helvie stepped into the role of head photorealistic painting assistant to Rudolf Stingel, a position he held for six and a half years.
“We did the Gagosian show, the Paul Cooper shows, Massimo De Carlo… I did a lot of the photorealistic paintings for the Rudolf Stingel show in Palazzo Grassi in Venice, where he carpeted the walls and the floor. I worked on all of the animals he did for Sadie Coles just at the beginning of this year. Then I got my own show with Natalie and I knew I wanted to do these ships. So I quit to have enough time to paint them.” Seven months prior to his break-out exhibition, curated by Natalie Kates and Anne Huntington, Helvie made a heroically intricate leap.
“When I came to New York I really started getting into this idea of repetition and intense skill applied over the entire surface of the canvas. Not needing reality, or the subject to be replicated well from reality, it was more about the execution of the object itself. Coming to grips with the object — the beautiful object that a painting can be. That’s where the scales came in. I experimented with the scales being parts of backgrounds in portraits or weird tumors attached to faces and it felt too, I don’t know, too creative. I wanted a more boring approach to things. Or a direct approach where creativity wasn’t really as much a part of the deal as execution. Vision and then execution. Having the idea in your mind and then doing it. Once I moved [to New York] I understood what Jasper Johns meant when he did the flag painting and said, ‘I just wanted something that I could make without thinking.’ Whether it’s the battleship or the scales, I’m not making huge creative decisions as much as I’m making objects that in the broader scope seem very creative. It’s not small gesture creativity, it’s larger gesture creativity. Like, the fact that that ship turned sideways next to those scales as a diptych on a wall is a powerful thing. Rudi helped with that a lot. He has a similar philosophy when it comes to creativity. If it’s too creative, if the idea shifts halfway through the production process, then that seems bad or something.”
Kind of ornamental?
“Or just…pussy. Like not following through. Even in Rudi’s more — what you would call his creative paintings — it’s a finished photorealistic painting but then he did a whole other thing on top of it. So, it’s not second-guessing halfway through. It’s two complete ideas layered on top of each other. What I’m talking about is this idea that you start painting a ship and then you get tired and you’re really frustrated because it’s so much work and then you decide, ‘Oh, well there’s going to be this smudge here instead of a full painting.’ And a lot of people do that. It seems like they didn’t follow through all the way. If you make a creative decision it’s only after you’ve earned the right to make that decision by working it completely through. Going through Rudi’s [studio] was the best education I could have ever gotten. I would not take that back for anything.”
What attracted you to the ships?
“Francis Bacon.” Helvie has been fascinated with Bacon and his work since he was sixteen. “He did a painting called Study for the Nurse from the Battleship Potemkin. I researched that painting and it’s based on his film still from the movie The Battleship Potemkin. Then I read more about Francis Bacon and that was his favorite movie. He watched it over and over again. Like obsessively. Which seemed to fit well with the scales because that’s an obsession I have with him. The ships kind of represent his obsession. In a way, that’s more how an art historian would approach it rather than a painter being influenced. It was going the roundabout way, finding out about his favorite movie and then going into it. And then also just watching the movie for myself and realizing how beautiful old ships on the water look, as objects. That opened up a whole other thing. ‘Wow, these would be really fun to paint. These would be really beautiful to paint. There’s so much going on — the water, the sky, the ship in relationship to both of those things…’”
Helvie continues, “But then I started to realize that some of my work is about this heroic painterly gesture that William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were obsessed with. You know, this abstract expressionist gesture. The ballsiness of the artist making that stroke, or something. I realized that nothing about these paintings, in the way that they are executed, relates to that heroic gesture. But when I decided to turn them sideways, there’s — not a painterly gesture — but the concept of a heroic gesture involved. So, even though that’s a painstakingly rendered photorealistic battleship with tiny little marks made with a tiny little brush, the fact that the viewer sees it as a rotated image fills the void of that painterly gesture. Also, I really like how a sideways photorealist oil painting of a battleship undermines itself. The sideways orientation essentially says, “Fuck you” to the hundreds of hours that went into making it.”
The photorealistic element is also kind of heroic because you put it against time and the lack of income during production. If it’s more loose — your gesture on the canvas — it gives you a little more leeway in terms of just life.
“I tend to hold everything up to art history, but I think that’s definitely a way to look at it. And this New York that we live in is a different place than the New York that Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning lived in. Making a gestural abstract painting back then might have been a faster application but it was a faster application for years of exile. You could make a hundred paintings in one day and you could have a studio full of finished work, and there was this fear that no one would ever buy it. Or this understanding that probably no one would ever buy it.”
I understand the relevance though of turning it sideways, going photorealistic, and having it be a negation of the technique.
“Well it’s necessary. The only reason I chose to do the ships and to spend seven months painting them was because of that sideways orientation. To me that was the kicker. At first I thought I’d do them upside down, but that felt too much like anarchy. You know, like turning a flag upside down or something. I didn’t want that. It felt too anti everything. I wanted it to be more of a question mark. Or something slightly off.”
You were pretty much going all day, right?
“All day. That’s full time, eight to twelve hours a day. Then at the end it was like nineteen, twenty hours.”
“Yeah. I would sleep for four hours and then paint, sleep for four hours and then paint… It was touch and go for awhile. The ships went a lot slower than I expected. I thought maybe three weeks per one. It ended up being five. And the big one took eight, which was unexpected. Also, the smaller ones took the same amount of time as the medium-sized ones, which seems weird, but it had to do with the resolution of the image. You’re doing smaller brush strokes but the same amount of detail. The surface area is so deceiving.”
Did you finish a day before the opening or something?
“Yeah. It was that camouflage painting. None of the ship existed, basically. I mean some of the masts were painted-in but not the actual body of the ship. So I came in on Monday morning and painted all the way up ’til Sunday night, went home, went to bed, got up Monday morning, packaged it all, and installed it.”
Was it still drying?
“Yeah, it was wet when it was on the wall.”
How did you meet Natalie?
“Well, Natalie works with emerging artists. I met her about a year-and-a-half ago. I was working for Rudi at the time and I had a studio in Harlem that was really small, like one-quarter the size of this. She came by and loved the work and wanted to do something with me. So we did a show at her house. I remember thinking New York feels like a wasteland for emerging artists. Like, how do you even do it? You can’t do it by yourself. You can’t just break through. It’s either secondary market or major blue chip. Or mid-career. But then how do you emerge? It feels almost impossible. People have to believe in you and they have to basically have a part of their whole lives structured for that, to help you. I remember thinking I just need someone to do that. Then I met Natalie. She really helped me at a very crucial moment.”
And you have to go out there to find them. They aren’t going to come to your door.
“Right. Well, for me a part of it was just being willing to rent a studio and have a functioning studio practice — just enough to get studio visits. That was me meeting her there, you know. So when Natalie met me, there was at least something to look at.”
How about being a father?
“Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, I remember when my son was born and I thought, ‘Oh shit, now I can’t be an artist anymore. Because I’m a dad.’ I thought for some reason it just wasn’t possible to do both. But that feeling lasted for maybe a day, and then I was like, ‘What was I thinking? I’ll just be an artist and a dad. And that will be what it is. That’s my job. He will just grow up with a father who is a painter.’ That’s kind of how it has been ever since. I’ve never apologized for it or felt like I needed to. But you do feel weird at first. Because I wasn’t living in New York. I was living in the Midwest and no one’s an artist and no one even really understands. They were like, ‘What do you do? Well, I work in the studio. ‘What do you do in your studio.’ Well, I make paintings. ‘For who?’ I don’t know, whoever buys them. ‘But who buys paintings?’ That’s how the culture is in a lot of the more rural places. The big jump for us back then was to come to New York. And the parallel jump to that was me leaving Rudolf Stingel’s studio and hoping that this becomes a viable thing.” By “this” he means living as an independent painter with a wife and two kids to support. Then Helvie concludes his thought, “Which, we’ll see… Just to have this work right here, it feels like success.”