Art review: Katy Helman navigates the aftermath of loss in ‘Sink of Swim’

The Deer Isle painter is showing at Frank Brockman Gallery in Brunswick.

Katy Helman’s “Sink or Swim” at Frank Brockman Gallery is a show of about 50 insistently lively paintings – thick, direct and poignantly present.

About 15 of the works are painted on paper with boldly loud colors. These have a graphic, almost graffiti-like feel, with strong cartoon-style forms (cartoons combine style and legibility) along with words and phrases.

The other works are all heavily painted, often with multiple canvases attached to the front of a larger support. These also include words and phrases, but they rely more on the built-up textures of the white and primary-colored paint than on the legible forms. Many of the works are built around centralized concentric circles. They are jumpy and jangly almost to the point of being manic.

With their heavy impasto surfaces, white and primary palette of non-blended colors, use of text and tendency toward abstract geometrical forms, the Deer Isle artist’s works reveal a direct proximity to the paintings of Alfred Jensen (1903-1981). But whereas Jensen’s work dug deeply into broadly universal notions of mysticism, Helman’s works exude a far more individualistic spirituality rooted in self-help and personal connections.

The artist’s statement about the show indicates this body of work began with her “swim ring” series of paintings, begun a year ago in the wake of the death of her husband. This is clearly a driving force behind “Sink or Swim,” but it fits almost too easily, so seeing the work in these terms is very likely to press a viewer to miss the depth, nuance and artistic richness of Helman’s paintings. We’re an Occam’s-razor society, after all, and that often confounds the rich sensibility stew behind the work of most accomplished artists. As simple and straightforward as any of Helman’s works might seem, they are layered with complexity.

Helman’s combining of seemingly contradictory emotions and perceptions is particularly interesting. The physical presence of the work – such as the built-up impasto surfaces – implies a here-and-now experience. And yet the imagery – for example, repeated cartoon-y monoprints of a naked man (impossible not to guess that in the artist’s mind, it’s her late husband) – relies heavily on ideas related to memory.

Helman, however, manages to thread the here-and-now together with the there-and-then by reflecting on the role of memory. Memory, she hints, is a now about a “now” experience of a “then.” One of her strongest (and most subtle) paintings works to this end by simply presenting the word “liminal” – something at the barest edge of perception. It’s a tip of the hat to perceptual and mental processes. It’s an invitation to consider the content at the edge of your understanding. The painting next to it quivers with giddiness by presenting the words: magic, happy, oddball, rapture and wonder. Without context, it’s simply fun – a smiley face of a painting. In the context of “Sink or Swim,” we sense Helman is using nostalgia (thoughts about her late love) to pick up and motivate her present. In the painting next to that, we are invited to an art history game. The work is titled “Under the Influence: PK” and that rather clearly seems to be a reference to Paul Klee and his magical painterly imagination. But within the image, we not only see a Klee-like figure, but a color wheel almost directly out of the work of Robert or Sonia Delaunay. To scan the room, the Delaunay connection is much more apparent. But Klee’s spiritual playfulness and physical presence indeed cut to the quick of Helman’s project far more meaningfully than simple appearance.

One of Helman’s works on paper repeats the phrases: “Lucky to Be Loved. Lucky to Be Safe. Lucky to Be Healthy. Lucky to have Food on the Table” over and over before punctuating the piece with the phrase: “AND DON’T ForGet iT!” This opens the door to the logic of mantras – the meditation tool of repetition. The mantra is both a fixed anchor and a strategy for being in the moment. In this light, not only do Helman’s circle paintings and repeated forms make perfect sense, but so does her studio practice: Style is about predictability and recognizability; it’s about tactics as much as strategy. And here we see Helman using the very notion of style to bring together and further her content, her studio approach and the spiritual aspect of her studio practice.

Helman’s playful use of materials – she turns around some canvases so that they look like a framed canvas, or a television – and her nods to artists she admires (we have to add Philip Guston to the list of folks already mentioned and I have no doubt there are plenty more) make it very clear she is a person who loves the culture of painting. And it is this sentiment that dominates “Sink or Swim.” It might be that Helman was originally motivated by loss and the personal need for healing, but the work in “Sink or Swim” is definitely on the “swim” side of the equation. It is uplifting, smart, fun and teeming with life.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: