Helen Grimm recently invited me to visit her studio in Truro, MA. Connected to an early-nineteenth century farmhouse that she and her family lovingly inhabit, her studio is surrounded by gardens evocative of my childhood visits to Cape Cod. While promising an eventual vegetable harvest, they’re also filled with heirloom flowers. Getting out of my truck, a stand of fading poppies particularly caught my eye. Red petals, some still holding to the pod and some having fallen, offered a premonition of Helen’s compositions, which always contain both the verity of what’s found in nature and the truth of an artist’s vision.
Helen’s new artworks, presented in her sixth show at Four Eleven Gallery in Provincetown, MA, advance the sophisticated visual vocabulary she’s developed over the previous decade while offering several extraordinary surprises. As she notes in her artist statement, the colors and forms of seashells have inspired her work for twenty-years, particularly because of their contradictions. Humble and jewel-like, shells are both transient and enduring. They glow with a range of bleached whites, often punctuated by rich color. Indeed, this reflection on the nature of shells offers shorthand for speaking of Helen’s paintings. Yet, it would be a mistake to leave it there. In addition to being a student of nature, Helen’s also a diligent student of painting, and one sees in her work both the lesson of Hans Hofmann’s push-pull abstraction and the precision of realist masters. Although working in entirely different genres, Helen’s layering of drawing and painting often reminds me of the extraordinary relationship between painting and drawing found in Alice Neel’s later works.
Two examples of this approach are Tuesday’s Supper and Cherry Stones. Tuesday’s Supper is one of the paintings to which I’m most drawn. Graphically bold, the outline of some shell forms rise above the picture plane, while others clearly recede. Two elegant passages of color, red and green, evoke seaweed – perhaps at the water’s edge or maybe packed between layers of a cooking pot as the title suggests. The painting’s visual richness draws me closer, absolutely like the aroma of a sumptuous meal. Cherry Stones is a quieter work, held together by the muted tones of white shell against sand. Blue shadow and flecks of yellow bring a viewer’s attention to light on slow water. This is not a painting to be devoured; rather it asks one to pause and reflect.
Anchoring the show is an extraordinary six panel painting, titled Sooner Than I Thought. Painted on Belgian linen and held together by the weathered lattice of retired beach fence, its use of paint and drawing are spare. My first impulse was to think of this piece as a musical composition committed to canvas, but upon subsequent viewing I recognized that it’s equally a piece of exquisite choreography. Others have seen it in relation to the traditions of Asian calligraphic painting. I’m tempted to believe that the various clams and mussels that animate the painting’s surface are a precise record of an encounter with the sea, but the painting is bigger than that. And perhaps, in this way, it’s most like Asian calligraphy, in which students study their teacher’s works for decades before having the temerity to make a unique work. This painting is a manifestation of Helen’s deep study of Cape Cod’s shoreline. While I suspect Helen titled the painting out of a sense of humility, it also holds an irony. Helen may have found the image early in her process of building the paint’s surface, but it took her a lifetime of study and work to recognize when it arrived.
Among the many fine paintings that bring a viewer’s eye to the water’s edge are a number of strong works that draw us toward the sky. Much has been said about ‘Cape light,’ but Helen’s landscapes speak to a less commonly discussed truth. There’s a profound and shifting energy within the spatial intervals between earth, sea, and sky, and Helen’s landscapes make this evident. Paintings like Wellfleet no. 3 hold all at once memories of Thoreau’s filmy sliver of land, nor’easters battering the shore, and every perfect day on the Outer Cape. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an outlier in the show, Cold Storage Summer Storm. A maritime, with its wine black sea, deep blue and
glowing ochre sky, it’s evocative of the power I imagine Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings held before they fell apart. A painting Helen made several years ago, it’s an unexpected addition to the show, offering gravitas to the other artwork’s lyrical animation.
Finally, Helen’s made a number of small works this year. Her ‘postcard series’ offer a gestural impression of the space between the sea and sky. At the other end of the painterly spectrum, she’s developed a series of eight highly rendered paintings
of individual oyster shells (Blue Oyster, nos. 1-8). As a series, these works remind me of my proclivity to collect objects as I walk the shoreline. And individually they remind me that all the world’s complexity is contained in that which nature casts off and eventually grinds to dust.
Current Juncture: New Paintings opened on July 15th at Four Eleven Gallery and runs through August 4th. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, July 22nd from 6-9 PM. Four Eleven Gallery is at 411 Commercial Street in Provincetown.