Haunting Portraits by Helen Oliver at Untitled
December 2 - December 6
Untitled: Art Miami Beach OVR 2020
Howl! Happening: An Arturo Vega Project is pleased to present the large-scale, theatrical paintings of Helen Oliver that depict friends, family, and acquaintances—speaking to the inner life of her subjects in expressionistic paintings that are eccentric, emotional, and at times, grotesque.
Most often the alchemy that produces a poem or
a work of fiction is hidden within the work itself,
if not embedded in the coiling ridges of the mind.
—Patti Smith, Devotion
“Oliver intuitively unleashes and then contains a concentrated area of energy that she discovers within the character of each person, and which eventually resides in the completed portrait. The alchemy in Oliver’s work is thus hidden, embedded in the coiling ridges of the image as well as the viewer’s mind, a phenomenon that corresponds to the alchemy that writer and musician Patti Smith has observed in the creation of a poem or a work of fiction.” —David Ebony, from his catalog essay, “Humanist Alchemy”, Howl! Happening (2020)
Oliver’s monumental portraits—often in the nude—are hallucinatory, bordering on the surreal, yet their psychological depth “feels utterly truthful, despite the strange distortions,” says Ebony. Tapping the vanguard of the artistic and performance-art world of the Lower East Side, on view are an array of oil paintings of people integral to that scene including Hapi Phace, Mark Koval, and her playwright brother, Edgar Oliver, for whom she has done stage-set designs, many of which premiered at La MaMa, and The Pyramid Cocktail Lounge. “In New York I painted my friends, East Village performers, artists, drag queens,” she says.
Oliver’s blithe, bohemian character imbues her paintings with an imaginative narrative and style that is evocative of German Expressionism, particularly the work of Egon Schiele and Paula Modersohn-Becker, but she cites other important influences in the Renaissance masters Giotto, Bartolomeo Montagna, and Sandro Botticelli. Her work breaks with traditional portraiture through its intense emotional power—elongated, twisted postures and undulating lines and exaggerated brushstrokes suggest hidden dimensions in the sitter.
An air of whimsy permeates the portrait of her brother Edgar as harlequin, while languid nudes stare frankly at the viewer. Raised by an eccentric and reclusive mother in Savannah, Georgia, there is also a distinct Southern-Gothic air that permeates her work. “There is a theatrical quality to Helen Oliver’s paintings, their scale and earthy palette recalling, in one glance, those eerily charmed circus or movie marquee posters of yesteryear,” says Tom Briedenbach. “This feels especially true of her portraits, which loom large enough to engulf the viewer in the formal contortions of their […] subjects.”
Oliver was a founder of Pompeii Gallery on 10th Street (and later Forsyth Street) in New York City in the mid 80s. She has exhibited in New York, Paris, and Lucerne, and has painted three rooms at the Carlton Arms Hotel. Originally from Savannah, she moved to New York in the late 70s after studying in Paris and receiving a B.A. from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She now divides her time between New York and Tarquinia, Italy, where she makes her home.
Image: Edgar, ca. 1985, Oil on canvas, 75 x 55½ inches