Bruce Helander, Eden (2002), mixed-media, 145 cm. x 122 cm.; courtesy the artist
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Describing an artist’s work as “user-friendly” may seem like a form of praise indistinguishable from condescension, but in the case of Bruce Helander’s collages, it is an appropriate turn of phrase. His pieces are accessible in the best sense of the word: witty, engaging and unpretentious. If the pleasure they offer is modest in scope and intensity, it is nevertheless winningly idiosyncratic and cunningly conceived. Only a curmudgeon could deny their charms.
Helander’s collages are pieced together from comic-strips, political cartoons, sheet-music illustrations and pin-ups dating from the 1920, ’30s and 40s. Snippets of these materials are arranged into abstract compositions. Helander has a keen eye for intriguing bits of mass-produced ephemera and is, apparently, something of a kitch connoisseur. In fact, it’s his collector’s acumen that sets the work apart. Whatever the merits of a cheesecake pin-up, Helander knows it is, to some degree, indicative of a cultural vulgarity not without its attractions or vitality. He also knows not to take it too seriously. Many contemporary artists who appropriate mass-media imagery do so as a means of setting themselves above it. Helander, however, isn’t a snob. He isn’t afraid to show affection for the kitsch he appropriates. Nor is he afraid of transforming it.
Helander’s gift is his ability to maintain the integrity of individual bits of imagery without detracting from the totality of each composition. Seen from a distance, one of the collages may resemble a jumble of shapes, colors and textures; it is, essentially, abstract. Seen up close, the same work will yield figurative imagery, making it difficult not to get caught up in the details. This is part of the fun. The swirl of images in Coastal Confusion (1994)–Helander’s titles are alliterative and cute–seems to multiply geometrically the more on stays with it. And one does stay with it because Helander has a deft touch for setting up rhythms and counter-rhythms. His fragments merge with each other in surprising and funny ways. He leads us back into the collage as a whole and the whole sustains.
Helander may be a collector, but he’s also a bit of a hobbyist, albeit one who is a sharp pictorial stylist–making the most of his free time. If he never really pulls out the stops, neither does he rely on mere facility. Instead, he opts for an unassuming whimsy predicated on pride taken in a job well done. This makes the work both fanciful and down to earth. His collages stay with the viewer long after the initial encounter with them, as does their good cheer.
© 1995 Mario Naves
Originally published in the February 1995 edition of New Art Examiner.