Somebody said that good art doesn’t provide answers, it raises questions. Perhaps that’s why an uncanny sense of enigma is the only absolute thing we can take away from Mercedes Helnwein’s recent show at Berlin’s Poole gallery. “Temptation to be Good,” inculcates the viewer in a sense of trouble making and, more than tempt us to be good, its film and drawings tempt us to dust off the old Clue set in the cupboard and channel our inner Mrs. Scarlett or Colonel Mustard. Her work is full of siren tricksters with a childlike charm that leaves us unable to condemn them despite that guilty gleam in their eyes. Despite her lineage of artistic genius, Mercedes’ work has a mesmerizing aesthetic that is distinctly her own. She twists our nostalgia for bygone decades together with today’s dilemmas, giving us snapshots into both our collective memory and our individual unconscious. Here she talks to Ana and Waverly about tough love, film-noir and life in the Wild West.
AFH: The girls in your Temptation to be Good series all look striking lonely and isolated. Do you think of them as a group? Do you relate to them differently?
I don’t think of them as a group. Each one is a separate character, and as I work on them they develop. I like their expressions to give me ideas about their past. It always seems like an unwholesome story that they are trying to hide, or trying to tell or trapped in. Sometimes a girl seems to be red-handed and other times, it seems that a girl is more on the receiving end of a shit-creek type of situation. I never think of them as straight up blameless victims of anything – they look a tad too guilty to me personally.
But that is just me. Who am I to really say what’s happening? They could be white-washed, Victorian victims in someone else’s eyes and I would totally accept that and see it as true.
AFH: What did “Luv is Tuff” mean to you at age 7?
That was my first comic strip that I drew. I left it on the dining room table for my parents one evening and they thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever encountered. It really made their day.
I think the idea of “love” was totally abstract to me at that age. I certainly had never been in love and the idea of boys and men in general grossed me out. I was more interested in the pretty girls that I got to draw that beat each other up to win this guy. I was interested in the story that involved the girls. Back then, I didn’t even bother properly drawing the men in my comics, by the way. They would always just be outlines and have very primitive faces – just two eyes and a mouth, kind of like ghosts. I couldn’t have been less interested in men.
AFH: How does your videos’ humor reflect your motives and interests differently from your drawings’ seductive creepiness?
The films are an extension to my static work. They show what happens when the scenes in my drawings crank into motion. I’ve always wanted to know what would happen if those characters were allowed a few seconds to move in.
WM: Your aesthetic seems cinematic – is it affected by any particular films or filmmakers?
Film-noir is an influence. But oddly enough, not so much from actual films that have I’ve watched, but rather books I’ve gone through with film-noir stills. I love the lighting and the incredible, almost ludicrous tension that exists in some of those scenes. Makes me wonder what the hell could be happening that would call for that much tension in a living-room with that kind of wallpaper. I love that way-out-of-proportion drama. Someone could be holding a stapler and it would make your heart go faster.
Films that I personally really like are often French. I’m a big fan of French literature, and I feel their films are kind of an extension to the literature. There is something so unutterably strange about their style. I never know how to properly describe this. Rimbaud once said of Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables” that is was more of a poem than a novel. I thought that was a great observation, and it can apply for a lot of the great films and literature that comes out of France.
AFH: Why did you move to L.A?
I have no obvious answer for that. LA is a town that should naturally repel me. For some reason it did the opposite. I didn’t know anything about LA at the time, and had no interests in the movie industry, no interest in the California weather, no dreams of becoming a movie star or surfing. But for reasons I don’t really know how to formulate, I was drawn to that town, and I just knew I wanted to go there. Then, of course, I hated it when I got there. Nothing made sense to me, and I couldn’t relate to all the partying and desperate attention to bodies and clothes and fame and money. The complete substitution of culture with the worst kind of entertainment, in which people could walk about and be
But the idea of moving away was never an option. And about two years into my existence in LA, I suddenly felt at home there. After scraping through layers of “LAness” you come to a creative core of sorts, with a whole universe of strange, like-minded people. And surprisingly enough I found a possibility there to create art with more dignity and honesty than would have been possible in any of the official art centers of the world.
I owe a lot to LA. It’s the fakest place in the world, no doubt about it; but I found some kind of very genuine quality there that was completely unexpected.
WM: What fascinates you most about America?
The fact the America is a bottomless barrel of weirdness. I guess that could be said about most places and countries, but there is something about America that is so incredibly interesting to me personally. Maybe it has something to do with it’s size? It’s so huge, and the “important” cities are on the East coast and the West coast, so the big middle is more or less left to ferment at it’s own leisure, and that is going to make for some interesting scenarios.
AFH: Your aesthetic seems suitable to the archetypical Mike Kelley/ Paul McCarthy sinister L.A art aesthetic. Do you just think artists are counter-balancing the sunny, shiny, glossiness of the climate and
culture there? Or is there something haunted about L.A?
I am not at all surprised that LA inspired a particularly dark, creepy or disgusting reaction from artists. It is LA after all. Isn’t all that glossiness repulsive and completely disgusting? And yeah, it’s a very haunted place. It has witnessed a lot of unthinkable things – it is home to the real noir crime stories, that are so beautifully portrayed in movies and Raymond Chandler novels. It is home to innumerable crimes, massacred dreams and corruption. It’s full of ghosts.
WM: Judging by your “Luv is Tuff” anecdote, it seems like you were a very prescient kid, and despite the mystery or eeriness in your work, there is also a sense of innocence that makes me wonder what you were like as a child. Can you say a bit about what were you like when you were younger?
Pretty much the same. I was literally doing the exact same things I’m doing now, just on a different scale. Drawing, writing, dressing up my friends in weird things and directing them for films and photo-shoots. I was very shy as a kid and teenager amongst strangers, but a dominant force amongst my friends and siblings.
I was never interested in modern-day culture, and that can be weirdest when you are a teenager and everything is about being cool. If you disagree with what “cool” is that can be a problem. I was really into old Delta blues music, and that was just so out of anything normal in teenage society, that I might as well have been an alien. Even my friends couldn’t make any sense out of it.
But I was a great loner and really wasn’t depressed about anything. I did violently wish I could have a real conversation about the music I liked with another person. I had just discovered all these amazing blues guys and there was so much to discuss. I’d talk to my brother about it a lot, and in return I would listen to his stories about Bruce Lee and the worlds greatest Russian chess players (his obsessions at the time). It worked out.
AFH: What changes for you when you depict girls or grown women?
A lot of the characters in my work are a mixture between girls and grown women. It’s an awkward stage in many ways, and there’s an innocence and weird naiveté that kind of goes away with age and the failures and defeat too much of life can bring. So there is a lot of potential for trouble-making in that age group.
AFH: Do you think being precocious is the right way to mature?
Well, I guess people mature in different ways. Whatever comes natural. I wouldn’t force anything, or hold a kid back that wants to go faster.
But I guess it depends on what “mature” is referring to.
I hate the idea of 11-year-old girls trying to be playboy centerfold models. What kind of a goal is that? I couldn’t imagine anything more mundane, boring and pointless. There is nothing extraordinary or about making men horny as one’s proudest achievement. It’s been done before.
Maturity in the right way would involve culture.
AFH: Do you consider yourself as fragile?
No. I’m not sure how I’d survive as an artist if I were fragile.
WM: How do you handle criticism or feedback?
I’m pretty relaxed about it. I don’t take criticism very seriously unless I happen to agree with it. I’m the only one who really knows what I’m trying to do with my work, how I want it to look, or what I wanted to achieve with it, so I am really the only one with the authority to say it worked out the way I wanted it to or it didn’t. Everything else is someone else’s opinion, which they are entitled to, and which I am entitled to dismiss as totally unimportant to me.
But I really appreciate when it’s finally time to exhibit my work at the end of a year and have people come in contact with it. That collision is amazing to me, and extremely important. I love hearing people’s reactions to the work, or what they get out of it or what they think is going on in a drawing.
AFH: How does your work relate to your father’s art?
I don’t think my work particularly relates to my dad’s work. We have totally different themes that we work with and we have different things we want to communicate. That being said, his work has definitely been a huge inspiration to me. Technically, he knows his shit in more ways than any other artist I know. I can stare at the lines of his color pencil drawings for hours on end and be completely fascinated. The chaos of those lines are really beautiful to me – haven’t seen anything quite like that anywhere else. But he also has an intensity in his work that goes beyond technique – everything he does has an essence to it that tackles you, and involves you, whether you want to or not. That is what real art is to me.
WM: You once described your style as “Southern Gothic occurrences in a vintage insurance office.” Can you say more about this?
I said that about the “East of Eden” show I did in 2009 and that seems like a good description for that. But every new series of work morphs into a slightly different shape and develops it’s own scent and heartbeat. My last series “Temptation to be Good” consisted of large-scale heads of girls in oil pastel, so that alone makes it quite a different style than anything I’ve done before.
WM: I see a shared attention to the uncanny in both your work and Alex Prager’s. Do you influence each other’s work?
I don’t think we do.
Alex was the first friend I had in LA. We lived in the same building, and had a mutual friend who was out of town, so we were kind of thrown together like kids are when the parents are friends and make their kids hang out. But it worked, and we got along pretty much instantly.
We ended up having a lot of our early art shows together, creating elaborate one-night events where we oversaw every detail form the beer sponsors to the valet. So we’ve been through a lot together – all kinds of disasters, road trips, art shows, projects of every size and shape. There is definitely a very strong bond and familiarity that will always be there. But our actual work was always completely separate. Even when we thought of a theme for a joint-show, we would never interfere in each other’s work. That was our own property entirely. Even our influences come from very different places.
AFH: What do you think of Goth-style hardcore girl artists like Sue de Beer, Marie Weber and Marlene McCarty? Do you see your work as similar?
I don’t see my work as similar to them, but I like coming across totally different ideas and viewpoints in other people’s art. I really appreciate that. It’s fascinating to see what comes out of other people’s heads and witness how that arrives with me.
WM: You’ve lived in a lot of different environments. Do you feel tied to one place?
I have a connection to L.A. that is hard to sever, because it’s almost like I need this place to be able to breathe. And there is so much I hate about it, by the way. I call it the Wild West a lot, and it really is. There are relatively few rules about anything. It’s so banal and disgusting and in certain ways, and so incredibly fascinating in others. Ireland feels more like a home ultimately. Doesn’t matter how little or how much I spend there, the fact that it’s always there, is a relief. It’s one of the sanest places I’ve been to. It just lets you exist peacefully without any pressures or frantic bullshit ideals.
WM: The clothing in a lot of your work, especially the film in “Temptation to be Good,” recalls the 1960s and a sort of “Mad Men” aesthetic. Does nostalgia play a role in your work?
I was always fascinated with bygone decades. Different time-periods interested me for different reasons, and the only time period that aesthetically really bored me to death, was always the present.
When I was about sixteen I began to wrestle friends, random acquaintances, neighbors and whoever else crossed my path, into these photo-shoots where I’d try to recreate as authentically as possible a specific time period or social theme. We did Ellis Island, where everyone looked like immigrants from the late 1800s. We did a Jewish family at Sabbath. We did the 40s, the 30s, the 70s, a Catholic school-kids shoot, the Victorian era, Irish farmers, and of course that is also when I first started styling people in the early 60s style. That 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 (not necessarily the cool part of the 60s of the young Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones). It’s always been a strange and fertile backdrop for the scenes I wanted to create.