INTERVIEW: Eric Helvie on One Or The Other
Eric Helvie’s iconic Cyclops was the “face” of the Roxy’s Surrealist Ball last New Year’s Eve, holding court both in the lobby and on our adorable disposable camera party favors. Now the artist is part of a two-person exhibition, One Or the Other, curated by the Roxy’s own in-house curator, Natalie Kates, which opens Thursday May 19th at the High Line Loft in Chelsea.
We sat down with Helvie to talk Surrealism, emotion-less art, and hoarding JPEGs of historical battle ships.
You’ve been quoted saying your body of work is not connected to emotion, a raison d’etre (or crutch) that many artists cling to. If not the cliché emotion, what drives you as an artist?
Competition…feeling pitted against history and all of the great paintings that already exist. But it doesn’t stop with paintings, I feel like I’m at odds with every great image, whether it’s photography, film, illustration, etchings…whatever. W.H. Auden said that, “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” For me “breaking bread with the dead” feels more like a boxing match.
Your work in the past has been boldly colorful- even using a bright pink Snuggie has your canvas. Can you tell us why this body of work is decidedly in only black and white tones?
There’s an etching by Gustave Dore called The Death of Leviathan. It shows God or an angel killing a sea monster. It’s completely black and white. These sideways battleships and scale paintings are directly related to that etching. They’re dying sea monsters.
I’ve seen the Cyclops image repeat in your work (including our disposable cameras for 2015’s Surrealist Ball!) It feels a little 1950’s horror film (like The Blob) and also reminds me a bit of the infamous slicing up eyeballs scene in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Am I totally off on these references? If so, what does this Cyclops mean to you?
You’re totally on. The Cyclops is meant to reference, first and foremost, Un Chien Andalou. After that any other association is fair game, Bunuel’s film has informed a lot of cinema. I’ve gotten Eraserhead quite a bit. Also, Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops. Personally, there is also the more autobiographical reference to me making photorealistic oil paintings, day after day, week after week, year after year and getting to the point where I want to blind myself. Needless to say, it’s a violent image.
Your pieces for One Or The Other alternate between historic ship imagery, and the pattern-like scale pieces I’ve seen in your past work. Tell us about these ships.
They’re all public domain images of WWI or WWII era battleships taken from the National Archives. I’ve been downloading and collecting them for about three years. At first I just thought they were beautiful and had no plans to make them into paintings. Then I printed one on fleece and made it into a custom Snuggie, but, because a Snuggie is vertically oriented the ship image was sideways in relationship to the sleeves. That’s when I realized I needed to make them into photorealistic oil paintings and show them sideways. A sideways ship immediately abstracts itself, and as a painting it immediately undermines itself. The sideways orientation says “fuck you” to the labor intensive process. And, that’s exactly what I want. These ships are not about how good I am at making something look “real”. They’re about something bigger.
I love the imperfection of the scale series. Are these hand drawn? How did you start painting scales?
Initially the scales were completely hand drawn. When my first son was born I was a stay-at-home dad and all I had time to do between naps, feedings, and diaper changes was to fill pieces of paper with that fucking pattern. Then after I moved to New York I spent about 2 years intermittently filling a 58″x36″ canvas with it using oil based paint pens and once that was finished I photographed it and passed the image off to a textile designer who turned it into a repeating pattern that was then turned into a large silkscreen which is now used to make the scale pattern by the yard.