For me, the artwork of Mercedes Helnwein is captivating and mysterious. Her black and red pencil drawings of vintage looking women seem to exhibit a sense of loneliness, desire and confusion. Who are these women? What are they doing? These questions remained unanswered, leading us to use our imaginations forcing us to create our own stories about who they are and why they have been captured in such a way.
One of the most interesting aspects of her drawings, especially from a photo-graphical point of view, is her use of lighting. Harsh white light against an equally white interior covers the women with the darkest of shadows, which cuts across facial features and clothing, obliterating all detail. It is this use of black against white that really creates a sense of mystery and disquiet, whether it is the black shadows against the white light or the black crayon against the white paper.
I find that her subject matter, which is mainly women, adds an extra element to her images. I think that because women are the subjects of a lot of artist’s work (such as Mandy Tsung, Sarah Joncas, MyDeadPony and Brian Viveros to name a few) there is a wide range of comparisons. However, I find that the women Mercedes Helnwein draws do not fit the stereotypical female role suggested by the mentioned artists. They are not sultry or doe-eyed like Brian Viveros’ women, or suggestive and playful like the women Sarah Joncas’s paints. Helnwein’s women are more thoughtful, quiet and reflective. They do not gaze longingly at the viewer, inviting you in, instead they hide in the shadows, often concealing their faces from view using objects such as toy dinosaurs and cars. There is a barrier between the viewer and the subject matter that I find curious; it makes me want to figure out what Helnwein’s work is trying to say. Why do we not see the women’s faces? And when we do, why are they so blank and emotionless? Is this how Helnwein views the world? Maybe the women she draws are a extension of herself; the part of her that is lost in thought or reflecting deeply on her life.
Of all of the scenarios Helnwein draws, one particular image captures my imagination more than the rest.
The image is this one, in which we see a woman sitting on a chair, clutching a telephone receiver. The first thing I notice is not that she is wearing a mask or that we can see that there is a man lying by her feet or that she is holding the receiver in such a way that she is blocking the caller from hearing any noise; it is the fact that she is staring at something out of our view. What is she staring at? What could have possibly distracted her from her call, that she doesn’t want the caller to her? As a whole, this image reminds me of a film still. I can imagine the woman, after hearing a noise, possibly that of an intruder, getting back to her telephone conversation, thinking that everything is all right and finding out moments later that she should have investigated the strange nose as the intruder comes bursting in, where she is left unarmed and defenseless.
But this is just my opinion. There is no more explanation for the image other than what you see, or more importantly, what Helnwein has allowed us to see.
As still images, her women are intriguing, shy and nonchalant, but through the use of film an video, Helnwein has made them come alive; transformed them into psychical women who hold random objects, wear masks, retreat into shadows, try desperately to reach into a room that emits a blinding white light and lie down in puddles of milk. Many of their faces are obscured by dark shadows and they move in jerking motions, almost robotically, as though they are not quite human. It is in Helnwein’s videos, such as Whistling Past The Graveyard and Temptation To Be Good, do we get a sense of how odd these women are. They seem to notice that they are the subjects of the camera’s gaze, but they do nothing to show any emotional reaction, only continue to go about staring into space and clutch an assortment of random objects. The way that Helnwein has edited the videos, so that we are almost bombarded with the assortment of different women and scenarios, which are inter cut with each other, match the jerking motions the women make. I feel that by making the video so inter cut with different images, it reflects the mind and how thoughts can suddenly be changed within seconds.
There is something very odd and uncomfortable about Helnwein’s choice of background for her artwork. The plain white wall, or corner in some of her images, could belong to any household, which suggests that her women are of no particular importance, just ordinary women captured in odd poses. Why choose such a plain, almost boring background? Surely, knowing that your images are in black and white, or red and white, and that the lightest areas of the images are going to represented by white, that a white background might make some of the details merge and the image look flat. Of course, through the use of tonal shading, Helnwein has made the women stand out from the background, regardless of the fact that she has used only one color. By using a white background it has forced her to use a range of tones and as easy it would have been to make the background a different color, the white allows her to stick to her minimal color palette. For me, the fact that she has used only one color (black or red) to create her images makes her work even more impressive.
In conclusion, I find that the work of Mercedes Helnwein is extremely intriguing as she doesn’t explain the concept behind her images but allows the viewer to make up their own minds. I find that the way she depicts women shrouded in shadows and obscuring their faces makes me want to know more about what she is trying to say through her art; what kind of social comment she is trying to tell us. Above all, I find Helnwein’s work to be a constant source of mysterious and thought provoking imagery, which is what makes her my favorite artist.