Dam construction and watercolor painting probably don’t immediately gel in your mind. But for Z. Vanessa Helder, they were a pairing that spurred on an artistic career 70 years ago – and then a rediscovery this summer at Tacoma Art Museum.
The Grand Coulee Dam isn’t the only thing in “Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder,” but it’s a big part of TAM’s survey of this new-found mid-century Seattle artist. Yet the show, beautiful though it is, leaves quite a few questions unanswered.
Of course, the big question is “Who is Z. Vanessa Helder?” and the TAM show and catalogue go a long way to answering this. Born 1904 in Lynden, with a Bellingham childhood and Seattle-New York education, Helder was trained in oils and lithographs but ended up choosing watercolors, a counterintuitive decision for a woman who clearly didn’t intend to conform to 20th-century female stereotypes. Known for eccentric habits such as walking her pet skunk around downtown Seattle and artistic activism (she was a pivotal member of the Women Painters of Washington), she also brought a non-gender-typical eye to the medium. Rather than seascapes and flowers, she loved architecture – buildings, straight lines, unemotional practicality – and captured it with a precision and modernist edge that’s not only unusual in watercolor, but incredibly difficult. As a friend with architects, hired to teach in Spokane and work for the federal government’s New Deal construction projects, she built a body of building-based watercolors that was respected at the time, with national exhibits at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and at the Museum of Modern Art.
You can see the results – tirelessly rounded up over the past two years by co-curator David Martin from all over the country – in TAM’s upper small gallery. It’s a peaceful, beautiful show, hung salon-style, which shows off Helder’s delicate palette of ochres, dusty yellows and red-browns, with occasional bluey-whites for snow scenes. The highlight is the Grand Coulee Dam wall, some two-dozen large paintings of this enormous project while under construction from 1939 to 1941. Burly men with hoses, rock elevators, tripod cranes, workers’ houses and railroads, not to mention the frothy, crashing water itself, are seen with smooth modernist color fields, flattened perspective, hard-edged lines and chunky, stylized shapes. This is Helder at her most imaginative – she takes upward angles onto hillsides, aerial perspectives down into gravel pits, and one remarkably abstract view of rocks and water that reflects dimensions like a hologram or optical illusion.
It’s all technically impressive, skillfully and patiently done. A wall of lithographs likewise speaks clearly, with attentive texturing and shading. Around these are other landscapes peopled solely by buildings: silos, barns, Victorian mansions, cottages and fences stand starkly clear against less-important terrain. Helder’s control of her medium is masterful, and her vision restful.
But the show raises some questions that aren’t answered in the wall texts, despite “Austere Beauty” being part of TAM’s Northwest Perspectives series which aims at scholarly representation of Northwest artists. Why, despite a year of New York study, is Helder avoiding any hint of the art trends sweeping Europe and the East Coast – Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Surrealism? Her work is American modernist, yes, but unlike Hopper, Wood or O’Keeffe, Helder’s vision doesn’t go much beyond figurative representation of the industrial or rural landscapes she sees. There’s no hint of futuristic threat, no gothic exaggeration, no feminism, no intimation that there’s any bigger theme than gable ornamentation or mechanical structure. Why? And why is Helder so taken with buildings as the heroes of her artistic world? The only hint of emotion is the softly-drawn lithograph of her skunk Sniffy. Neither Martin nor TAM co-curator Margaret Bullock touch on this.
The other missing piece to the Helder puzzle is her final two decades. The last work in the show is from 1948, some 20 years before her death. The only clue in the gallery wall texts is that she began to worry her works weren’t abstract enough in the 1950s, before stopping work due to health problems (that presumably ended her life), bequeathing her works to a Jewish community center in Los Angeles, where she was living, and where the center sold them without a trace.
What happened? According to historylink.org, she spent the last few years sick and caring for her sick husband, dying in 1968 just eight days after he did. It would be nice to have this included in the wall text.
Martin has done a stellar job in unearthing as much as he did of Zama Vanessa Helder and her striking, unusual work. But TAM’s survey of her work, though beautiful, leaves the viewer wondering about all the rest.
It’s everything “Austere Beauty” isn’t. It’s big, varied, thought-provoking. It isn’t austere, and a lot of it isn’t beautiful (though some definitely is). Tacoma Art Museum’s new portraiture show, “Sitting for History,” taken from the museum’s collection, ranges over several centuries and continents, from old masters (Renoir, Raeburn) to new ones (Chuck Close, Brian Murphy), and succinctly conveys how the idea of taking a likeness has changed alongside art itself.
First getting your attention with one of Chuck Close’s highly pixilated paintings (“Lucas,” looking scarily like a homicide mug shot in rough grays), the show actually moves rather sedately through various themes: historical portraiture, the artist-sitter relationship, portraits of children, women artists and so on. This kind of mixed show is ideal for showing off small, individual works from the collection, and matching otherwise unremarkable items.
In the historical section there’s a lovely Raeburn full of delicate pinks, golds and thick Scottish browns; Matthew Pratt’s wittily identical father-baby daughter pair from the late 18th century; and TAM’s two hey-look-at-what-we-have Renoirs, both portraits: the “Heads of Two Girls” and “Portrait of Mlle. Lerolle.” But they’re not just wall brags. Instead, curator Margaret Bullock has given them context: the real Mademoiselle Lerolle is also shown in a contemporary photograph, highlighting Renoir’s subtle retouching; and the saccharine-pink of the two girls stands out starkly next to George Luks’ “The Immigrant” of 1904, a fat-cheeked child wrapped for winter, his black eyes and clothes grimly indistinguishable from the darkness that surrounds him.
Northwest history is also probed. In a nice touch that echoes the Vanessa Helder show next door, three portraits of mid-century Seattle artist Ebba Rapp (Helder’s good friend) sit side by side: a swooshy, romantic self-portrait in sunset-streaked oils, a misty silver print by Leonid Fink of Rapp as a stylish flapper, and a down-to-earth photograph of her in the studio, taken by her husband, John McLauchlan. McLauchlan’s in the gallery himself too, a mere shadow on the ground in a quirky street photograph.
Then we move into more contemporary visions on how to capture likeness. There’s William Cumming’s delightful yellow-raincoated child, guarded by his big black dog, and Virna Haffer’s vulnerable photo of the back of her baby son’s head, all fuzzy nape and softness. There’s Steve Davis’ enormous color photographs of vulnerable-tough teenage boys, and Norman Lundin’s eerily corpse-like “Sleeping Model,” painted with arms folded, skin waxy and a gray-sheeted bed high like a tomb.
There’s Kathryn Glowen’s “Dress of Years,” a christening dress pinned with golden metal tags of dried butterflies (one for each year of her friend’s life) and mounted in a gold frame like a halo, and Kiff Slemmons’ homage to da Vinci – a tiny silver hand, shown with its inner workings of cogs, chains, paintbrush. Finally, the portrait of us all ultimately: Dan Webb’s rather obvious memento mori skull, chained to the redwood block it’s carved out of.
In short, this is a show for everyone: smart, clear and varied, with a theme we can all relate to – ourselves.
Want to be in a portrait? Tacoma artist Kyle Dillehay is looking for subjects for a photographic portrait project themed “Opposites Attract.” Shown at the Tacoma Community College Gallery in October, the show will feature Tacoma folks who feel opposite to their partner in some way: political, religious, racial, physical or any other way, photographed and printed using a historical platinum printing process.
To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org. TAM EXHIBITs
What: “Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder” and “Sitting for History: Exploring Self-Identity through Portraiture”
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through Oct. 20 (Helder) or Jan. 12 (Portraiture)
Admission: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and students; free for those younger than 6, for all from 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays, and all military until Labor Day.
Also: Watercolor workshop 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 5, curator lecture on women painters 2-3 p.m. Oct. 5
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com