When I saw Rachel Hellerich’s paintings for the first time online I was mesmerized by the combination of styles. To find so many of my personal tastes intersecting neatly felt uncanny. I could see the tropes heavily laid in the landscapes of Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts. I could identify the plastic oscillation of Victor Vasarely. Each painting seemed to present its own psychedelic swan song, seamlessly combining arrival and departure. The work weaves influences every-way across linear time in a dazzling moire, achieving a familiarity that’s hard to place.
Hellerich, in addition to being a dedicated painter, works as a Senior Preparator at the Yale Center for British Art. She specifically mentioned frame restoration when we spoke on the phone in early March.
I was initially attracted to the work because of Hellerich’s tenacious visualization of subconscious or inner spaces; explaining an ambient utopia, perhaps between waking and sleeping, where our lucid thoughts shape stairways toward freer dreaming. Hellerich’s paintings offer the polywampus angularity of living mediated by architecture and geometry. The images are thoroughly composed but still manage sentimentality. Hellerich’s paintings are not avoidant of life’s ugliness but seem to regard forward movement as utterly necessary.
The word tintinnabulate was invented by Edgar Allan Poe for his poem The Bells. The word means “to ring” or “to chime”. Poe’s phonetic gesture describes the hesitancy with which we as viewers might physically enter these pictures before being enveloped by their colorful vibration.
Hellerich’s exhibition Present Phase will open at the New Haven Artspace on Friday April 6th and will run until the 28th. The exhibition will include six new paintings completed by Hellerich in 2017 and 2018, and will also feature a wall painting that reflects the physical scale of the artist’s body as a way for the work to abstractly frame the figure.
Beginning in January I began corresponding with the artist and conducted the following interview through the course of several e-mails.
JAW: First I’m wondering if you’re aware of Augustine Lesage, and perhaps less so Joseph Crepin?
RH: The two artists you mentioned, I don’t know them. Lesage’s work is familiar to me, but I didn’t know his name. But thank you for letting me know about him, I really like his work!
JAW: I think the optical intensity of your architectural style, both manic and supernal, suggests some similarity with those artists. There’s a shared obsessive gravitas. I’m also wondering to what degree color theory comes into play in your process?
RH: The manic and supernal. The manic part is undeniable in my practice, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve always been drawn to the process of making art. The time I spend making the piece is for me, while when it’s done, it’s for the world. The supernal comes into effect too. I believe sometimes I’m like some kind of reincarnated soul that’s been fortunate enough to have been able to transmit visually, memories from some kind of other, parallel world. That’s giving myself maybe more credit than I deserve at this juncture, but often I feel like I’m tapping into a unique vocabulary from an unknown source. At times I believe it throws people off because they struggle with finding what category to put my work in. Obsessive gravitas is an insightful way of putting it. It might seem maddening to some to paint tiny blue squares hundreds of times for hours on end…and at times it’s challenging to me. But in the end, it’s all about building something of a circuit board-like stage to achieve the motion and scale-defying effect in my work.
JAW: Is it terribly calculated all the time? Do you weigh geometry above color? Does visual sensation rely on a certain soundness of the structure?
RH: My inspiration does not mainly come from art. Nature is always the foundation of every piece. I live by the ocean, so that’s probably the most influential aspect to my work. It’s an ever-changing landscape. Also film, textiles and of course, architecture all come into play. I visit plenty of museums and look at a lot of different art. But I’m most drawn to venture to a particular museum/gallery if it itself is an inspiring environment.
I don’t follow a strict color theory code in my work. When I’m looking to create a calm element in a section of my work, I tend to go for subdued tones, mainly complements, or a monochromatic scheme, things that make sense. In areas where I want to create tension, or motion, I gravitate towards dark tones or over-saturation, a palette that makes less sense, yet one that still attempts to draw it into the overall color language of the piece. There are ways in which I tie things in, ways in which I’ve edited more than the viewer would expect. It’s all a part of creating a false world where scale, perspective and light sources don’t exist. Though I’ve learned that in making these false worlds, you still have to create rules in a way that anchors the development of each piece. And because I’ve been pretty prolific and experimental throughout my art career, color has become pretty instinctual. I know why something doesn’t work, why it does, or what will work. Though sometimes I still struggle to get it right!
JAW: To the end that your paintings are as you say “built” what room does that leave for further content?
RH: There’s a large degree of critical thinking in my works. There’s no winging it. Nothing is arbitrary. I start with a very basic composition for each piece which is a drawing in pencil on paper. It’s nothing terribly complicated. So to answer your question about what comes first, I’d have to say geometry first, then color. I can show you some of these drawings as we go on. The composition, color and some prepared pattern ideas inform the work about 50-60%. The rest evolves as I work on the piece and often there are changes along the way.
JAW: Does the everyday live in your painting or is it more geared toward notions of the sublime and transcendental?
RH: I am geared more towards the sublime and transcendental in the creation of my work. As the natural world has such a profound impact on my work, I am deeply in touch with the more remote parts of my imagination. I dream often and at times experience hypnogogia. Those experiences have been my biggest evidence for becoming a painter.
JAW: Earlier you spoke briefly about the therapeutic effect that’s perhaps inseparably consummate to the practice of art. I would love for you to speak more to the idea of past life transmissions if the imagination there is more expansive? You specifically reminded me of Hilma Af Klint. She made much of her oeuvre through induced trances whereby she had hoped to convey visions and truth beyond structures of language and convention.
RH: Yes, there is something about building these often tiny layers, shapes to build up to a cinematic outcome. I also have a background in classical music and I’m still a huge appreciator. Writing that last sentence makes me want to relate the goal of my pieces as the first minute or so of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor. Are you familiar with it? It starts so beautifully simple, sounds totally harmless, and carries the theme that brings it all the way to the end. It’s delivering that opening theme, the blueprint in my case that becomes the concerto. There’s something about that journey of feeling initially so connected to a complex musical score and be taken along for the ride, all its twists and turns. There are glimpses along the way of what grounds you, other times leading you astray, and places too mysterious to grasp. There is a part of our brain that we rely on to aid us in creating a made-up scenario. Using that part of my brain I find incredibly mysterious even to me. Maybe it is somewhat trance-like. Very ordered, trance. Ha! It’s an exciting and remarkable gift to be able to successfully create abstract art. The inner workings, how it’s made is for me because I’m the designer/creator. That’s my job. It then becomes for the world because the majority of the world is not made up of minds like yours and mine. Our gift is meant to provide a gateway for others to escape into, within, and through.
JAW: You mentioned you’re trying to stage motion and defy scale in your paintings. I’m curious to know exactly what you mean. I kind of think that scale is diminished as an issue in the realm of total abstraction because the visual lexicon there may not present any worldly tether for reference.
RH: When you mention trying to stage motion and defy scale in my paintings, I mean I don’t necessarily want to define that space. I’ve discovered that what is a ‘wall’ to me, is the ‘floor’ to another. I think by not having rules that apply necessarily in a traditional sense, you enable the viewer to uniquely create that space. What I would give sometimes to look at my paintings through another’s eyes.
JAW: Inasmuch as you mention that most of your art is not necessarily composed or inspired of other artworks, beyond Vasarely, whose works make you excited about your own? Secondly which museums do you love the most? I also think that given the natural influence on your work, its relationship with transcendence, and also visual stimulation that you really need to travel here.
RH: Which museums I love most… well, at the very top of that list would have to be Dia: Beacon, and the Vasarely Foundation in France. Going to Dia for the first time, you were able to walk right up to the Michael Heizer’s. They are very powerful and command a level of respect. The different shaped ‘pits’ bring feelings of vertigo (naturally) and impossible escape. Then upstairs you have this amazing display of Louise Bourgeois’s work, in a dark, green industrial room. With obvious flaws, and previous writings on the walls from when it was the factory, it’s so perfect for her work. And I learned she also liked it. It taught me environment is everything. The same goes for artist studios. Where you create should be an inspiring place. Either the structure itself, or the neighborhood. I think it’s integral to making well rounded, thought provoking work.
JAW: I was very excited when you mentioned hypnagogia. I myself experienced the similar phenomenon of night tremors for an abnormal period of my life. Could you describe these experiences to me? Are they traumatic or blissful?
RH: Lucky for me, you have also had hypnagogia-like experiences, so you don’t think I’m crazy! Though yours sound a little more frightening, I’m sorry. Often for me they are somewhat positive, though whether or not I have any control over them can determine whether or not they’re enjoyable. I’ve dealt with some level of this since I was young, so I’m prepared, but it still can be unsettling.
JAW: Looking chronologically backward through the work that’s posted on your website I am struck by two trends. One would be a sort of scaling down (literally) coupled with a diminishing in the number of vanishing points and busy-ness in general. This is to say that many of your more recent pictures seem more emblematic, focused, meditative, whereas some of your earlier paintings, notably the larger ones, seem concerned about many things in many directions. I also noticed, although it may be inconsequential, that in years past you had made some very large paintings whereas more recent work hovers around the 36″ mark.
RH: Yes you’re right in noticing the scaling down and diminishing amount of what I call ‘elements’ in each piece. I went through my work about two years ago (after a heavy critique) and counted how many elements were going on in each piece. They reached up to 11 in some (I counted different patterns, textural drags, solid color shapes, etc). It was a challenge for me to scale down and try to do to more with less. It was a process, things didn’t evolve at a rapid pace. In some ways I think though I’ve limited the amount of elements, my latest geode pattern is one of my most complex. I’ve always been influenced by Asian art, specifically woodblock prints, screens and paintings. The way they use negative space, false perspectives, very particular areas of complexities, yet still one finds a way to enter into a reverse flatness. It has always fascinated me and influenced how I determine perspective in my work.
JAW: The other thing I noticed is a declining use of cultural signifiers. Some of your earlier paintings reference a lot of eastern architectures and pattern styles, as well as Islamic geometry. I would ask you how these references functioned then and now? I would also wonder why and how they have changed? Does the sublime hold space in these?
RH: The cultural signifiers in the very beginning acted as the vehicle for me to enter the world of patterns. Eastern art has always influenced my work heavily, and I can’t really explain totally what draws me to it (I happen to believe this may be a form of reincarnation) So, as I went on, and started to give my paintings a hard look, and think about my own cultural heritage. And some stories emerged. My background is Italian on my paternal side and German on my mother’s. My (maternal) grandmother and most of her family left Germany in 1929, with the exception of my Uncle who decided to stay in the Army and was an outspoken protester against the war. He unfortunately died under mysterious circumstances. This part of my family history has always haunted me, and inspired me to want to pay an homage to his memory and the side Germany that was against the war. In a series of paintings I made from ’12- ’15 it explored various structures from WWII, some no longer in existence, some imagined. It spanned Germany, Italy and Japan, and I recreated them with patterns taken specifically from the three cultures, as a way to pay homage to each country’s pre-war cultural history. It was a way to take back these structures and history from the axis powers that devastated a chapter of our history forever. I stopped doing them a few years ago as I felt I was finished exploring this part of history and for that period of time, I was working with a tremendously heavy heart.
JAW: In some of the earliest works on your website there are traces of the psychedelic and perhaps also a little bit of super flat aesthetic. Being that all of your work could be explained as “so trippy,” how do you feel about associations between your work and Dionysian cultures of today’s psychedelia? Then, as far as your rules go I would really love it if you might try to walk some of them out. I make a lot of rules in my work as well. I think that rules are necessarily part of the obsessive or repetitive vernacular.
RH: After the war series, I decided to tap into a comfort zone which involved very freely exploring my subconscious. This unrestricted method of working was how I often approached my work in the past. They come across as psychedelic and super flat because they’re coming from a very raw part of my brain. When I allowed myself, after my various experiences in sculpture and painting, to come back to this very primitive, free way of working, it opened up a new dimension, reigniting the hypnagogia that we talked about. Also, living by the sea, an ever-changing landscape and light shapes my work immensely. I do have some rules, but not many! Mainly working clean and trying my best to resist incorporating every color in the spectrum, as I feel the composition gets lost when I do. I also don’t have any of my other work up in the studio when I’m making a new piece. I work in a white cube essentially. I want my ideas to be fresh with each painting, if I’m stuck I’ll take one or two out of storage to look… but mostly, I want the experience to be a pure, meditative state.
JAW: Insofar as the transcendental and sublime are concerned are they at all religious for you in their effect? The spaces you create seem to be beyond the human realm which is why I ask. This also makes me wonder to what degree is the complete absence of figure a totality. Most of your paintings depict architectural structures and so I wonder who they were built by? If the answer is nobody but you then in what way do you imagine them being “for the world?”
RH: It can at times be very spiritual and metaphysical. Based on my own life experiences subsequently and as an artist I think one should contemplate the bounds of their spirituality. The absence of the figure is deliberately so the viewer can feel like it is their world; I am the architect but not necessarily the inhabitant.