Mercedes Helnwein’s “Chaos Theory”

0 Comments 06 July 2017

A dissection of Austrian artist Mercedes Helnwein, whose solo show “Chaos Theory” is currently running at the Edward Hopper House in NYC.

by Kristy Senko-Hall



Across the global landscape of surrealist art, Mercedes Helnwein stands apart. Combining the gentle tug of nostalgia with a creeping sense of doom, her paintings infect vintage ads and clichéd notions of “the good old days” with the dread of existence.


She writes:
“That 60s style stuck. I went back to it again and again, because honestly I thought it had an addictively ugly quality to it. And when I began shooting scenes to draw from, that became a consistent background. I wanted my characters to vaguely come from the conservative, ugly, small-minded life of the early 60s. It’s always been a strange and fertile backdrop for the scenes I wanted to create.”




Some nights—or more than not—I wake to the sound of silence as my grandfather’s puke-green, windup clock slows and ceases it’s ordered imperative. I feel like the spring inside, emptied of all the force and tension required for logical endurance. The silence becomes a void, continuously opening and fading in and out of substance on the inside of my eyelids. There is a secret life of order and disorder, only available for glimpses like in dreams. The void opens again, and I’m a fly on the wall in my grandfather’s old house. The musty smell is intoxicating, rewinding me through a montage of wood-paneled and wallpapered rooms, both subtly and suddenly, just as intermittent blackouts would gently fade in, to a consciousness that is all too bewildering for–wait–a fly?

So, I stir. Visions of that old family home are still flashing; and I have a sense of having visited, by dim lamp light, a place I’ve missed so much–and a time I’d missed entirely. Seeing, under dust; the strange fabrics and plastics, furniture adorned in textured upholstery, and coats and shoes with similar qualities; only made me more hypnotized by what I couldn’t see. What were my predecessors’ relationships to these objects? These rooms? When did they last touch them, and is there an enduring residue of their narrative? Most importantly, how weird was it?
There are only a few things that bring me back to that captivation. One, of course, is that windup clock. Another, a collection of old sci-fi novels my grandfather had given me while visiting him at the home I had just dreamt about. They still smell like that musty old house, and their ominous content reminds me of being there.

Rarely can visual art capture this illusive ardor. But Helnwein does just that. Her work does not define a period, place, or moment. By merely motioning toward the strangeness of possibility, however, her art trips that odd, subliminal wire. The detonation of which, is a captivation with the unsavory.





An Ireland/LA transplant, Helnwein was born in Vienna, Austria and spent much of her teens writing and drawing. She never received formal education but draws heavily from her formative influences which range from Southern Gothic traditions to the cartoons of Robert Crumb, nineteenth Century Russian literature, American motel culture, and the Delta blues.

Helwein’s talents extend beyond the brush, across mediums and disciplines. As a published writer her works include comic books, short stories, films, and novels, including her book, The Potential Hazards of Hester Day, which is available in English and French. She is also versed in film and photography, shooting reference material for her paintings and films as part of her exhibitions. Collectively, these have addressed, as Helwein puts it, “the theme of American living rooms and the ‘almost normal’ activities of its characters.”

The key word being “almost,” exactly what confuses the status-quo in any vintage aesthetic perceived in her pieces. At first glance comfortably mundane, Helnwein baits you with familiar comforts, kidnaps you, and inserts you into a retro-psychic-nightmare. In a modern culture that seems to place all of its “good,” its “simplicity,” and its “family values” in the past, I call this “almost normal” implication a prolific victory.










“Chaos Theory” will be on-display at the Edward Hopper House in Nyack, NY thru August 6th.

Learn more about Mercees Helwein on her website.

Follow Mercedes Helwein: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook

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