ERIC HELVIE

Click video above to take a virtual tour of Eric's studio

Tell us about your background. Do you remember your first interaction with art?

I was born in Portland, Oregon and lived there until I was nine before moving to South Africa.  My parents enrolled me in art classes at the community center in Portland and I remember going there to learn how to draw the “basics”.  One of my teachers taught me how to draw the head of a hippopotamus [laughs]. 

What is a typical day like in your studio?  Do you have a specific routine?

I do.  I come in as early as I can after I drop my kids off at school.  From there, I tackle my “to-do” list: check emails, make calls, get ready for the day’s work… then I start painting.  I'll paint for eight to ten hours, depending on the show deadline, and then go home.

How has your art changed over the years?

In the beginning I only did portraits, a lot of sci-fi portraits.  Those started with a need for my art to look “real”.  I would take snapshots of my friends and then try as best as I could to paint their faces realistically.  …And you can only do that so much while you’re studying art history before you become dissatisfied with replicating your friends’ faces.  I wanted my work to be something very distinctly different,  I was looking for my own language, my own voice.  Those portraits progressed to where I am now.  The remanent of the portraits exists most strongly in the Cyclops paintings: in the shape of the head, the roundish curves, the distorted sci-fi quality.

The portraits then started to become even more distorted.  The tops of the heads became more simplified until all that was left was a roundish curve.  That's when I started painting scales and at this point everything is filtered through that.

Art history and obsessive amounts of visual references and imagery go into your work.  Who and what are the biggest inspirations for your series?

It’s a combination of three or four influences that are equally strong and speak out simultaneously: 

Francis Bacon is an incredibly powerful force.  Yes, his paintings, but more so him as a person and the character/myth of his presence that we now (today) interact with.  I think I’m fascinated with his life.  The ships directly reference Bacon's favorite film, The Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein.  Even though photorealistic painting is not a direct reference to Francis Bacon, it’s still attached.

Old etchings are referenced in my scale works…  I tend to be drawn to the darker, weirder stuff. Gustave Dore’s etchings are very powerful but there’s lots of really old etchings from the Middle Ages with obscure creatures that I like as well.  I’ve also always found Illuminated Manuscripts interesting.  Monks recorded reams of beautiful texts but in the margins there were often strange, obscene beings existing alongside the spiritual.  So you have absurdity juxtaposed with sacred texts. 

Lastly, Abstract Expressionism and the idea of the "heroic gesture" is pretty strong in my fleece paintings.  Not as a focus in and of itself, but as a pendulum swinging between the incredible obsessive focus [in the ship and scale paintings] and the need for release from that. 

You’re an avid reader, too.  What authors have had the biggest influence on your creative process? 

I think it started with both Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick; Slaughterhouse Five and Valis really changed things for me.  Valis opened up a space in my work that allowed for absurdity and humor to exist alongside something incredibly serious.  

Speaking of humor, you use interesting materials, most notably, a Snuggie.  Can you talk a bit about this?

The stretched Snuggie came out of a place of distaste for the inherent emptiness of the object, and a fascination with its figurative qualities.  To me, the Snuggie functions on two levels, as a joke that allows the viewer to continue on their way with a chuckle, and as a hook that slowly reels them into the more violent meaning.  Again, we're getting back into Bacon territory:  stretching the Snuggie felt like I was performing a violent act against the human form, much like the violence Bacon portrayed in his paintings.  A lot of his works reference a crucifixion and in a way, stretching the Snuggie felt like a crucifixion.  I'm stretching the fleece around a stretcher bar; I'm forcefully stapling it into the bar; the bars even have a cross beam that reference the crucifix. It feels violent.  But the end result is humorous and absurd and also incredibly beautiful.  I really feel like depending on the type of person that sees the work - they either get an immediate reaction of pleasure and almost a “lightbulb moment”, or it pisses people off and they’re disgusted by the absurdity of it.  It’s very important the work functions on both of these levels because it forces the work of art into a space in your brain where you don’t easily forget it.  

You are currently working on a couple of series: the fleece abstracts, the ships, and your scale works.  What is the link?  How do they coexist?

I have never really been interested in style, only sensibility.  And the way I define sensibility: a viewer walks into a room and even though things are not the same (the same painting, the same motif), the viewer still gets the sense of the artist’s presence and interacts with the pieces with the understanding that the same person executed each one - it’s not an inconsistent visual experience.  There are threads of coherent thought that exist throughout.  

For me: I can only do so many abstracts before I feel like there has to be some photorealism to legitimize the mess. And I can only do so many photorealistic paintings before I realize I’m not in love with the level of detail and I need to fuck some things up. There is a constant dialogue between the two.  And it continues - the fleeces aren’t done until they are speaking to the scales, and the scales aren’t a complete idea until they’re speaking to the ships.  All of that needs to interact. 

I know a painting's finished when it's viewed in relationship to the other bodies of work.  Does it hold its own in the context of the other works?  Is it as strong as the others? At that point, it’s almost not me deciding if the work is finished.  The body of work judges for itself. 

All images courtesy of Josephine Rozman