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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 02 — May 7, 2018

In Conversation

Mercedes Helnwein Artist7 minute read


Mercedes Helnwein is a multitalented, multifaceted artist. Working across realms including oil paints, pencil sketches, film, photography, prose and more, her output is impressively varied. Her work has been exhibited in galleries across the US and Europe. Born in Austria and raised in Ireland, she now lives in Los Angeles. Here she discusses family, books, artistic forms, her time as a teenager, and the pleasure of elaborate photo-shoots.

Rosalind Jana

Interview Rosalind Jana

RI know you grew up in something of an artistic dynasty [her father is the Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, and all her siblings work in the creative industries]. Was it always just a given that you’d end up doing something creative, or did you consider any other paths?

MDoing something non-creative in life never even remotely crossed my mind, to be honest. And although growing up with my parents and being exposed to so much art and culture most definitely had a big effect on me, I think part of it was just who I am. I am so not a business type person down at my core. Everything in my head revolves around creative ideas — constantly, all day long, and it’s always really been that way and there’s nothing I can do about it. My parents just supplied the right environment and support and inspiration for me to do exactly what I wanted to. I am incredibly lucky to have had that kind of upbringing. 

I’m always interested in people’s teenage years. How did you find yours?

I always find that super interesting too —how people’s teenage years were— because it’s such a volatile period of one’s life. You suddenly have to figure out everything at once. How to have all these emotions you never had before, and be consumed with hormones and love, and decide what your style is and what your music is and what represents you. It’s a really interesting period of a person’s life.  

I was not a dramatic teenager but I was very shy and I read and drew obsessively and listened to old blues music. And despite all the crushes I had, boys scared me to death and I did not know how to talk or breathe around them.

I usually had a small circle of very close friends around whom I felt at ease enough to let my true personality come out — which was actually a very loud, class-clown type of personality. I have many video recordings as proof. 

What I liked about growing up in the ‘90s is that there was no social media and iPhones and all that.  You called someone up on a phone and agreed to meet somewhere and then you inevitably hung out for hours and hours, actually interacting and making things happen out of thin air. Even just spending hours figuring out what to do was pretty action packed. 

There also seemed to be less pressure to be perfect, physically speaking. With the Internet not a part of daily life and no Instagram, etc, there weren’t all these constant pictures and standards in your life of girls with flawless make-up and hair and eyebrows and amped up sexual vibes and filters and lighting to compete with or feel insecure about. Everything was based a little more in reality. There were no selfies! That might have been the best part of growing up. It kind of blows my mind what fourteen-year-old girls look like in some of the pictures they post. This is another whole discussion I won’t deviate into right now.

MTV was also an important element of growing up.  There were so many great music videos circulating on MTV at the time, back when it was actually still a music video channel. Even if you weren’t totally into all the bands they played, it was still fascinating to watch the videos.  That visual element was such an important part for any ‘90s band. I remember watching those videos intensely for hours, and making up my mind about what they all meant.

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I also read that when you were sixteen you started doing elaborate photo recreations of different eras. What was the allure for you of putting them together? Tell me more! As someone who loved dressing up and corralling all my friends into shoots as a teenager, I loved this detail.

Oh man, yeah for sure!  I did that all the time, and still do it, actually, because in many ways I have not matured past the age of fourteen.

I think the allure for me at the time was my fascination with history and what people’s ideals were during different decades — what they wore, how they thought, what their customs were, and how they lived. So it became this challenge of trying to create, as perfectly as I could, a photograph that might have existed in a different period. I’d go to thrift stores and try to find anything that I could turn into whatever period I was trying to recreate. And if you were my brother or friend or neighbour or neighbour’s uncle, you’d end up in my photo shoots.  

I have my friends SO well documented that I’ve thought about making a whole book with just these shoots that I’ve done over the years that never really get to see the light of day.

Especially with your paintings, there’s something that can be rather unnerving about the images — like slightly off-kilter insights into passing moments that should be very mundane, but feel strange instead. Is that purposeful?

I’m first and foremost always interested in stories, no matter what I do, so that’s the most important factor. The images I really gravitate to in terms of making them into paintings are those moments that are frozen in something almost normal — where there’s no actual hard evidence of something being off, but everything is pregnant with some surreal/crazy story.  A background curtain pattern or a piece of furniture alone should be able to spook you. I really love the idea of extreme “normalness”, because I feel that there is no way that something that normal is ever normal. To me, a scene that is too perfectly mundane must be riddled with wormholes into alternate dimensions! Can you tell I love Stephen King?!

I’m also fascinated by artists who choose to blur out or cover up people’s faces. Whether it’s John Baldessari and his dots, or your paintings where people’s features are smudged over with bright splashes of colour, especially your Death on a Cracker series. What’s the intrigue for you?

I think it has a lot to do with my relationship to oil pastels. I began to really fall in love with the texture and the sculptural aspect of oil pastels. The Death on a Cracker work is all oil pastel and photography. I don’t remember exactly how that started, but it was a way to work with an image to get more out of it. I have massive archives of photo shoots I’ve done over the years and I think I probably just pulled some of those photographs out and started to play with them. In the end it goes back to storytelling — I felt that the story in the images became more potent if worked over with another medium. Those smears of colour in the face or around the face often reminded me of thoughts these characters might have, or visual representations of their emotions or dilemmas or ideals.

There are also your really lovely pencil portraits of people. Does drawing someone make you see them differently?

Thank you! Drawing is definitely an addiction, and it’s a really perfect medium for portraits. I do think you see the person you’re drawing differently than when you see them in real life.  Besides really becoming acquainted with their features on an intense level, I also feel that you become intimate with their personality — whether that is the person’s real personality or not. You start to develop a relationship to the face you’re working on and you pull out of it a personality and a life. Doesn’t even matter if it’s fictional. Basically a portrait hinges on the attitude you give the person. That’s all that matters.

You work across a wide range of artistic mediums (as well as novel writing, of course). I feel with writing that each form allows one to approach the same materials from wildly different angles — the way you can use words in poetry obviously being very different to a research-heavy novel, or journalistic commentary. Is it the same for you with your visual work, given that you do everything from pencil sketches to photography to film? 

Totally. You can approach a story so differently depending on what medium you use. And of course, there is also a technical element involved. Some images I want to do would only work with pencil, or only with oil pastel, or only at a certain size, etc.  So connecting the right idea up with the right medium is a big part of the process sometimes. This is where a lot of mistakes happen and learning curves and experimentation.

I love your range of personal influences, where you cite everything from “Southern Gothic traditions to the cartoons of Robert Crumb, nineteenth century Russian literature, American motel culture and the Delta blues, amongst others.” What’s influencing you right now?

Well, since I’m heavy into rewriting my novel right now, which takes place in the mid ‘90s – I’ve been going back to all the music I remember as a kid, and falling in love with it heavily. The Smashing Pumpkins have been kind of the emotional backbone of the novel, so that has been an unforeseen huge influence over the last couple years. As well as a lot of other music — the Beastie Boys would be on the top of that list too.

And as an extension to that, which pieces of literature have been the most important to you? 

East of Eden might be the Siamese Dream of the literary world for me — the perfect novel. I’m a huge Steinbeck fan. When I was about fourteen I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and that is what got me reading obsessively through my teens. Mark Twain will always be my first love. I was also a huge Charles Dickens fan in my teens. Huge. I wanted to live in the Victorian era, and his storytelling is on another level. I got lost in those books. And in fact, the first novel I wrote and finished, which was when I was seventeen, was this crazy Victorian novel written in that Dickensian style. I still have it, written into a series of composition books with a mechanical pencil. It’s very embarrassing.

Charles Bukowski left a big impression on me, too. I began by mainly reading his poetry, which I still regularly go back to in order to feel right in my head. And Ham on Rye kills me every time I read it. I’m also a big Donna Tartt, Tom Wolfe, and Stephen King fan. And I’ll never forget S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Other authors that have really stuck with me are Kafka, Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud, Dostoyevsky and lots of French nineteenth century literature.

Oh, and I read Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan as a teenager and was mesmerised. The atmosphere of the language, the beautiful melancholy of the story and the emotions, and of course, the title. It might be the best book title there is.

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