Helene Nielsen and the ambiguous surface

Dots, horizontal stripes, coloured expanses. Running paint, paint applied with stencil, or shapes of relatively naturalistic character. On the surface, a variety of layers exposing different painting techniques. Helene Nielsen’s paintings are different answers to the question: “How to paint”. They have a bearing of attempted analysis, and relates to a modernistic and formalistic interpretation of visual arts. An interpretation which, according to the theorist Clement Greenberg, implies exploration founded on the idea that painting as an art form should be anchored in its expertise: Applying paint on a level surface. Only to a limited degree, Helene Nielsen attempts at creating new painting techniques. Rather, she combines techniques developed during the course of modern history of art. The comparison might be surprising, but the patchwork of techniques found in Nielsen’s works, is in effect an echo of compositions and collages found in Merz works by Kurt Schwitters. In the same way as Schwitters played with common objects from every day life, Helene Nielsen plays with painting technique. She makes mix-paintings, and samples heterogeneously from modernistic technique.

Nielsen concocts patterns and various techniques in order to exploit the graphical effects, as well as to create varied expressions of depth and dynamics. She is not a lyric painter. In fact, her recent paintings starkly contrast lyricism and passionate expressionism. Her paintings possess the qualities of profound reflection and analysis. They are thoroughly and precisely composed, shaped through a long process of constant development. The work evolves in its own rhythm, in consonance with the application of graphical effects born in the creative process. Nielsen’s imagery can be characterized as a vivacious coalescent formalism, with undeniable decorative qualities, particularly in terms of pallet. Usually, Nielsen’s pallet comprises radiant colours providing her pictures with the quality of attraction. In certain paintings, the colours have some of the freshness of pop-art.

Nonetheless, Helene Nielsen’s pictures are not decorative. She entices her viewer to lead him astray. She gives him the comfort of viewing a familiar imagery, whilst small elements interrupt what he takes for granted. By use of stencil or naturalistic style, Nielsen introduces forms with recognizable contours, figures or letters. Displaying letters in a painting is a common technique, employed by artists ranging from Georges Braque to Jasper Johns. In Nielsen’s works these familiar elements conjure an effect different from that created by the Cubistic-Dadaistic inspired tradition. Rather than being complementary means of expression, they are contrasts and agents for transformation in the perspective from which the pictures are perceived. A familiar form, a bird, a propeller, a word, or a sequence of letters resembling a word, awakens our curiosity. The picture has undergone a sudden shift in identity. We thought we were observing a painting all about ruminating the picturesque, and suddenly we see a picture calling us, posing a question. You feel that the picture hold something disturbing, something weird, that you wish to comprehend. The picture seems to be concealing a secret, a message. You remember that it has a title, not as a mere embellishment, but as a key to perspectives.

Helene Nielsen plays with moments, providing a continuously changing perspective. From analysis to emotion, from technical to poetical. In composition, the different elements are not only various shapes and expanses produced with different techniques, they become allegories alluding to a mystical meaning. Not only in metaphorical or symbolic ways, but also in force of the visual effect, as a emotional relationship to shapes and expanses in concert.

Some surrealistic and hallucinatory details are found in certain paintings by Nielsen. Dotted patterns hypnotize, coloured planes with brushed contours invites the inner into blossom, while open coloured expanses draws us to portentous abysses. And before long, the vivid colours initially appreciated for their attraction and decorative qualities, is perceived as anxious and peculiar. The pictures yields for experiences of weird moods. Certain shapes, sometimes painted in a naturalistic fashion, such as the Pepsi can in “Minne” from 2006, seems intrusive among coloured expanses and simple patterns. These elements appear to be floating in an ambiguous image space, and calls to the mind surrealist agents of expression.. The dynamics in the pictures seem frozen in the moment, expressed as an interval between the constant and the passing. Some works gives the viewer a more existentialistic experience. The expression of boredom in Repetition from 2008, and the ambience of emptiness this bears, illustrate this. The repetition of banal dots seems to be a neutral and eternal level floating in a endless abyss, on a vacuum. Meanwhile, the paint dribbling on the right side inspires associations to the slow and merciless walk of time. The contrast between the patterns and the traces of running paint inspires an experience of the insignificance and vulnerability of existence.

Helene Nielsen’s pictures open doors to two emotional perspectives. On one hand they look like sophisticated and picturesque explorations, on the other they open up to a poetic ambience more or less influenced by graveness, a solemn outlook on life. Two different sensitivities, of two intrinsic viewpoints, works parallel and creates an ambivalence in the paintings which are neither soberly formalistic and harmless explorations, or existentialist / surrealist tendency pictures. They are spaces in between, wide gaps challenging our comprehensive abilities.

Nielsen’s works proves the lasting relevance of painting as a topical style of expression in contemporary art. There are many things taken for granted and many formalities linked to the painting as an artistic medium. It becomes a valuable tool for exploitation of viewing as a culture based means of deciphering. In a society where people are interested in the nouvelle, a society where all spins fast and everything is shifting, the painting provides the viewer with time to concentrate on details and personal experiences. He gets time to get surprised and perplexed when not expecting it.

Helene Nielsen’s paintings play on team with the time the viewer spends to contemplate the pictures. Nielsen paints the portentous moment of approaching the unknown. She opens riddles, she spreads doubt and ambivalence. She paints the search for meaning. However, it is a search without answers. There are no replete stories in her pictures, merely co-existence of signs triggering memories and ideas.

Helene Nielsen invites us into a disjunctive image space mirroring the contemporary struggle with perceiving a fragmented reality as holistic. She entices us in a uncertainty reflecting part of our times commuting between certainty and doubt, between self-confidence and anxious quest for meaning. She exposes us to a world where the life buoy is the only anchor.

Sylvain Berland,

MA in History of Art.

Translated into English by Sarah Isabel Sætre Stensrud

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