Studio Visit with Bonita Helmer
“All things come out of the One and the One out of all things. … I see nothing but Becoming. Be not deceived! It is the fault of your limited outlook and not the fault of the essence of things if you believe that you see firm land anywhere in the ocean of Becoming and Passing.” ~ Heraclitus
“A painting is not about an experience, it is an experience.” ~ Mark Rothko
By Gary Brewer
Using a symbolic language of form and employing painting techniques that emulate organic processes, Bonita Helmer creates clusters of nebulae that unfold within a field whose vaporous quality suggest the light of stars glistening through veils and mists of color. These paintings announce themselves in subtle shifting moments of apprehension. At first, one sees the spontaneous process-oriented technique, followed by the beauty of the color chords expressing themselves. Then slowly, the delicacy of her spatial considerations reveals itself, articulated and subdued with spray paint and thin washes of color. These are masterful, shimmering apparitions; these works have an emotive depth and resolve that comes over one like the shades of light shifting in the evening sky. A subdued passage slowly reveals the exceptional chromatic sensitivity of the artist’s eye and the emotive impulses that guide her paintings to their final destination. They have a spiritual quality suggesting the origin of life, or the birth of a star; it is the sublime utterance of the logos, the principle of divine reason and creative order.
Bonita fluidly guides these paintings into a realm where science and spirituality dance around a black hole of the unknown. She researches scientific theories to inspire and suggest themes in her work, but lets the paintings live in a slippery realm where disparate tendrils of human endeavor to understand our existence coexist as partners in a divine dance. Her studies from Buddhism, Jungian archetypes and the Kabbalah all freely interact within theses nebulae of thoughts and feelings, hunches and speculations about space and time, being and nothingness. Her themes give the work a narrative undercurrent, but it is the experience of being with the paintings, their effect on one’s perception, and the emotions communicated by the subtle nuances of color and techniques, which convey a sense of mystery.
Bonita’s early influences include her time studying dance, which she says still animates her paintings through the sense of musicality and movement within her compositions. Later, as a young woman she took a workshop with Francoise Gilot with whom she became close friends. It was Gilot who introduced her to Carl Jung’s idea of the archetype and influenced her interest in the study of a symbolic language of form. She also had an opportunity to study with D.T. Suzuki, the first Japanese scholar to bring direct knowledge and teaching of Buddhism to the West. All of these early experiences have helped to shape her interests and the themes that guide her work.
She spoke about her process: “At first I establish my ground putting on four or five layers of paint – from full brushstrokes to thin washes and drips and splashes – striving to capture a shimmering luminous field. Sometimes I use nacreous-metallic pigments as undercoats and in thin washes of color to create a light sensitive, reflective surface that subtly glows and animates the space. Then I place the canvases on the floor and pour paint from varying heights with a deep understanding of how much it will spread out when it hits the canvas. I have a great deal of control of my materials and how they will behave. Unexpected happy accidents occur along the way, but there are no mistakes. I use various mixes to achieve different effects that allow the paint to reflect spontaneous organic processes. I then develop the delicate spatial qualities, rubbing areas out, adding washes of color, mists of spray paint etc. to subtly enhance and subdue various areas, until there is a unity and the presence of mystery.”
Painting has a protean capacity at verisimilitude; from rendering things in a realistic approach, to innovating techniques where the process emulates organic phenomena – creating imagery whose appearance conveys microscopic or galactic visions. It is a capacity that gives painting an alchemical quality. For centuries the medium’s plasticity has allowed artists to continue to develop languages that reflect the current philosophical and intellectual pursuits of their times. In Bonita’s hands, this dexterity is expressed through an emotive poetry of form and feeling that explores the far edges of knowledge about our place in the universe, the nature of reality, and the unknown invisible forces that shape existence.
It is in her deep sensitivity to spatial considerations that the seemingly haphazard processes are in essence masterful, delicate coordinates of color-surface- gradients – all rendered in a subtle yet delicately physical approach. They have a surface quality that simultaneously reads (varying from piece to piece) as a silver-leafed field from a 19th century Asian painting, the sun bleached, weathered and distressed surface of a wall from DTLA, or a galactic field captured in a Hubble deep space photograph. There is something touching upon Rothko’s subtly worked surfaces where myriad veils of color – anchored in a delicate physicality – exist as both light and surface, spirit and matter. It is the unification of opposites, the reconciliation of being and nothingness that Bonita seeks to express; the wonder of existence and its impermanence. It is the immanence of spirit creating worlds from the void upon which they return in an eternal cycle of “becoming and passing”.
In some of her works there is a man-made element, the suggestion of a geometric triangular form entering from one of the edges of the canvas or some squares with design elements suggesting a circuit board or some other human design. At times it may just be the linear elements of perspective creating a plastic tension between the flat space of the surface and the forces of single point perspective. “I want to create a dialog between organic processes and human thought and endeavor. I want to represent our minds in search for understanding within this unknowable mystery. My titles ‘The Tau Particle” or “Ionosphere”, allow me to suggest the ideas of astrophysics, but not as illustrations of those phenomena but as vehicles of poetic intuition and metaphor. I am not interested in illustrative narratives but in expressing mystery and of our search for meaning through knowledge and insight. I seek to unify the symbols and metaphors of science and spirituality within my paintings.” It is a search for the emotional sublime, a way to match her own ‘felt’ responses to her research into science and metaphysics and to create experiential paintings that convey the emotional resonance of her journey.
The act of painting is a profound vehicle to capture and communicate emotion, feelings and ideas. It allows the artist to convey the thin filaments of thought whose contours can only be known by the effect the paintings have on consciousness. There are mysterious forces that we, as artists, learn to master through will and submission and in this act of surrender and control, worlds are fashioned out of matter and light. They allow the imagination of the observer to wander within the field of thought-experiments and to come away with their own understandings.
Bonita Helmer explores the universe in which we live, using various disciplines of thought – from art, science and spirituality – to create metaphoric constellations of ideas and communicates them through the phenomenology of light, space and color. These paintings dance on the edge of the abyss, and fluctuate between worlds yet to be born. They exist as representations of the ever-becoming potential that animates us and this shimmering universe of which we are a part.
Bonita will be the featured artist at Art Matters at the Huntington Library, Pasadena.
She is in a a group show at FOCA gallery China Town. Both shows are this May and a solo show at George Billis next fall.