Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Bruce Helander at Peter Marcelle: Art Lover Boy Wonder

Fun in the Sun(2012), collage, 25 x 15"

Bruce Helander has had to pay the price for being more than a great American artist. In his illustrious career he has done it all, art school dean, publisher, dealer, curator, collector, writer, critic, entrepreneur and artist, and  he has done it all his way. Call him a Renaissance man, from Kansas. All groups demand dumb loyalty, confining us to one discipline, and the arts are no different; but to his credit  Bruce Helander is too smart for that.

"A Survey of Works" at the Peter Marcelle Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York this summer showed off this brilliant artist in all of his witty and inventive glory;  over two decades of collages, assemblages, and paintings tracked the bright arc and spectrum of his unique art experience. Bruce Helander pioneered the mining of Americana for probably the last 50 years or more, and the ground is firmly his. What his friend Tom Wolfe is to American Arts and Letters, Helander is to her Fine Arts. What Wes Anderson brings to filmmaking today, Helander has been forging for the last half a century.

But the Fine Arts in New York are a tough club.   The late great Richard Merkin,  another friend of Helander's,  boogied through the gates on the coat tails of America's one true and undisputed celebrity and style: Jazz. Helander had no such ride.

Is it any surprise that the source of this work flows from the Heartland. It is not about influence, but roots. Bruce Helander is Heartland America’s native son, land of sun and corn, son of corn. There was not ART there. Art was the fins of a '57 Chevy. It was the silver diner, the ferris wheel, the pin-up girl.  It was the jacket worn by Presley. It was fantastic, and it was the fantastic.  Art was the show. The great and powerful Oz was artist, and Bruce Helander is that showman. Not everybody gets that. He is a descendant of Oz. His style is a little bit carney. That is his charm. He is quintessentially American.

Elvis Reinvented(2012); collage, 21 x 15"

The New York modern art world was born European, Europhile and Eurocentric. It was shaped by the likes of Stieglitz, Mondrian, Duchamp, Rebay, Gorky, Graham, Peggy Guggenheim, Gertrude Stein, and Betty Parsons(and of course by the guy who was always in the room, Picasso). It was the New World, where Europeans came to free and reinvent themselves. It was where ex-pats came home to roost. Bruce Helander has more in common with Thomas Hart Benton than Pollock ever did. Pollock is mistakenly called our one great All-American artist, but Pollock caught the ball from Europe and ran with it thanks to the likes of Jung and Andre Masson. Bruce Helander is the All-American. He doesn't just chafe in Gucci,  Gucci chafes next to him. Like Thomas Hart Benton, Bruce Helander would be happiest with his work hanging over a bar. You can't take the Kansas out of him.

And in this there is flash, and he becomes Flash. And then there is his keen eye and appreciation for all things fake and faked. Bruce Helander is a connoisseur and aesthete of the clever work of imitation. He is the professor of ersatz and simulacrum and duplication. But make no mistake, he is the real thing. He celebrates our true nature. Our boldness. Our brash. He revels in it like Marilyn Monroe in a bubble bath. Pin-ups are his perfect playmate. The French may have refined the art of never having found a situation that could not be improved by a naked woman; but the pin-up is pure, red-blooded American.  That it borders on politically incorrect makes it an excellent source of both tension and the not-so-secret guilty pleasure.  It is just one aspect of his work that is both naughty and comical. Where he is the Joker. The shameless punster. The clown. The guy killing himself with laughter. Having us on. Winking. The gift of a smile for each of us. Seriously.

Post Triangle(2009); collage, gouache on board, 17 1/2 x 15 1/2 in.

Sure, Helander too owes a debt to Picasso. Collage is his medium. The Cubism of collage. It is the ball he has been running with. It is also the lens he sees through, and what we see through in turn.  But the debt ends there and he paid it. After that he took a left on Tristan Tzara and followed that through the light past Magritte and De Chirico all the way down Utopia Parkway to the thruway and parts unknown: a little place just beyond postmodernism called deconstruction, where he set up camp way ahead of the pack.

Bruce Helander has an exploding sense of invention that remakes things, transforms things, takes things apart and puts them back together, makes them whole, makes them beautiful, and brings them to life. It is what he does; he makes collages and assemblages. He makes work that looks back at us. 

Bruce Helander is more than artist as original, artist as creator, artist who makes something from nothing; Bruce Helander is the reinventor, the recreator, the recreationist, the recycler, the great recycler, patching together what others cast off. In this he is both artist and educator, because folks, this is how it is done, this is what makes great art. And this is what makes Bruce Helander so special. He shows us the way.

What finds and  fancies and forces its way into his images, cut and cemented in place, are the stuff of the American Visual Experience, the once Life Magazinesque: advertising, wall-paper, billboards, kitchen labels, comic strips, posters, and sex. A largely print design world. A largely vanishing world.  A quirky and whimsical world where cigarettes are good for you, Elvis is The King, and all breasts point to heaven. Neon lights and chrome. Paint and leopard skin. Sequined sun glasses and Hawaiian shirts. Roller-skates and apple pie. State Fairs and prize pumpkins. A world Helander lovingly documents and preserves and resurrects.  A world he remembers for what was best about it, for what was unique and special about it. A world that is well worth remembering. But again, and most importantly, also a world that is above all both fun and funny. Where everything is fair game. Where he can poke fun at it all, including himself. Where the motto is “sense of humor or die trying.”

That Bruce Helander loved art made him a rare bird in that world. That he is an artist who is also a great art lover makes him rarer still. It is what lifts him above the common artist that can love only his own work. Bruce Helander is an art lover; art lover extraordinaire; art lover boy wonder!

This is what he does at the end of a long day, cutting and arranging pieces of paper under a plate of glass; playing with fragments of images and shapes and colors and words and puns of all kinds. Squinting at them through the smoke of a cigarette that might have once been in his mouth.  His mind racing, eyes searching,  ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, processing at a 100 miles an hour. Flashing. Turning. Turning everything on its ear. Gaming. Referencing. Conjuring. Riddle me this! Riddle me that! And so it goes. Wordplay is as much a part of these collages as image play. That makes them as much a delight for the mind as for the eye, a delight seen sharply through rose colored glasses. A parade for the eyes that ultimately takes us somewhere else, somewhere Jung would have relished, somewhere down a yellow brick road.  And there's the surprise! Toto, we aren't in Kansas anymore!

Addison Parks, Spring Hill, August 2012

EDEN(2002), Mixed Media, 145 x 122cm