Phoebe Helander

In Plain Sight
May 18, 2024   -   June 16, 2024

Tiny Pictures in a Period of Massive Flux in Advance of Lights Out

Since the 18th century, when the French Academy established its hierarchy of genres, Still Life – or Nature Morte – has generally been regarded as among the lesser choices. Compared, say, to History Painting. However, in the modern era tables have turned – quite dramatically, in fact – if one starts to think of Still Life in conjunction with History Painting. That is to say as a kind of canary in the coal mine where life itself is at stake and Nature Vivante has become existentially precious. 

These omninous thoughts come to mind when closely examining the lovingly limned, predominately single-image still lives of Phoebe Helander. In each small rectangle, we catch an incidental glimpse of something palpably fragile that has been frozen in time. Arguably, if one pays attention to news bulletins, frozen at the End of Times. Think of the individual panels as future fossils over which archeologists of centuries will pore in order to parse the pertinent details of a bygone era. 

When I say “palpably” it is to underscore the intensely tactile qualities of Helander’s sovereign painthandling. Note bene, how small epiphanies of brushwork bring into focus quotidian objects “in plain sight:” the edge of the peel and inner divisions of a sliced orange, for example, or of a cup of coffee almost coterminuous with the bottom margin of the painting, or the near volanic perimeter of a cracked egg, or the petals and stem of a rose blossom, or an artichoke-like ranunculus, or, or…

Or a candle. Actually two candles. Neither flame flickers. But an unexpected gust could easily cause them to do so. Or extinguish them altogether, transforming these commonplace beacons into momenti mori, which is to say everyday reminders of the essentially fleeting character of every day life. Here today, gone… Against that temporal background – cast into shadow by the historical background that makes these pictures contemporaneous with the devastation in Ukraine and Gaza, effecting an explicit fusion of Still Life and History Painting – think of any one of them being found undamaged in the rubble of bombed buildings and they would appear truly miraculous. 

Now turn to the pair of self-portraits and we come back around to the implicitly unnerving dimensions of these modestly morbid paintings, since they are effectively still lives of an animate being nestled in amongst and slowed down to the contemplative pace of inanimate things. In one we see the artist impassively gazing at herself in the mirror with her hand poised – and paused – above her work. In the other she is also looking at herself in the mirror, but painting that self by applying lipstick that only half covers the upper part of her mouth while simultaneously picking up the red in her eyes. Has she been crying? Working too hard? Rubbing her eyes? We’ll never know but in any case it provides us with important information about the private vulnerability of this otherwise blandly inscrutable sitter, and, despite her demonstrated mastery hence her capacity to create poignantly beautiful things, about her acute awareness of her own perishable beauty.

Robert Storr – Brooklyn – 2024 

In Plain Sight is Phoebe Helander’s third solo exhibition at Pamela Salisbury Gallery. Helander graduated from Yale with an MFA in 2019 and now lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. The young artist’s paintings are a deft blend of skill, humor and heart. She closely observes everyday objects, using each painting as a channel to convey the intangible moment of encounter with her subject.