Mercedes Helnwein Has the Temptation to Be Good


by Tommy Tung

Famed for her pencils, Mercedes Helnwein colors her future in oil pastel. Her exhibition, Temptation to Be Good, is now on view at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles until December 11.

“It’s a title that makes me think of a Midwestern girl being taken advantage of by Jesus and the Devil,” says Mercedes Helnwein of her series, Temptation to Be Good, which finally turns on the on-and-off romance with oil pastels.

Pencils play coconspirators, as they did in last year’s East of Eden, but Mercedes also appoints dominion to each instrument, allowing the pastels to govern the grace of their own pages, and the pencils to remain in office and draft that cryptic comedy of errors. All parties prevail — particularly the artist — who destroys disinterest by adapting.

“I had done one pencil drawing too many, and thankfully found a box of Sennelier oil pastels in a drawer,” the artist recalls. “It was a pretty dramatic day in the studio and thankfully nobody was around for me to physically attack. After I ripped up my drawing and found the box of oil pastels, I pulled out a huge roll of paper an artist friend of mine had given me a couple years ago. I taped it to the wall and started drawing the outlines to a huge face. I had to do something totally different in order for me to survive that day.”

Survival accomplished, the artist continues her overachievement — publishing her first novel, The Potential Hazards of Hester Day (2008) before the age of 30 and architecting art of increasing incredibility. Her shows sell internationally and famously as Damien Hirst purchased her collection, Whistling Past the Graveyard (2008), earlier this year.

Temptation to Be Good inherits qualities of East of Eden (2009) — criminal coteries (“Easy Company”), antipodal emotions (“Jim and Summer”) — but yet is an independent sibling, not erecting the full-bodied postures of East. It may floor the damsel (“Missouri II”), classic in Mercedes’ art, but it is all grown up in personality.

Know their gaze and know the women — not as many sidelong glances as before and not as much anxiety, but more dreaming and more meditation. In The Book of Disquiet (2005), Mercedes used color pencils for finely etched faces, hushed in dark tones of shadow and hair. Temptation tears apart tradition with oil pastels, the palette vibrant and the dimensions titanic at around 45” x 60.” Deem them deities — these women — and in their countenance, read their folklore and cosmic quest, for the grandeur makes this possible.

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