Helen Rae, one of the progressive art studio movement's most prominent artists, currently has recent work on view at White Columns in NYC, marking her first east coast solo exhibition. Rae has maintained a creative practice since 1989 at First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont, California, where her studio mates include Joe Zaldivar, Hugo Rocha, and many others. Rae is represented by The Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles, who has been presenting her work with great success in both exhibitions and fairs since 2015. Rae is quickly emerging as an important figure in this movement; her work is striking, wildly popular, and at 78 years old, her practice is one with great dynamism and momentum. Despite the rapid trajectory of her career, the vibrancy and quality of her graphite and colored pencil drawings remains steadfast. Extremely prolific, each body of work Rae produces is notably more impactful than the last.
Paige Wery introduced Rae to a broad audience in LA with a rich collection of current work in 2015, followed by another stellar exhibition last year. Similarly, Matthew Higgs has selected works created in series over the past eighteen months, including a series of six works based on photographs by Steven Klein and Edward Enninful for a special edition of the fashion magazine “W”, as well as nine other drawings in a relatively lighter palette. In the interest of expanding the contemporary art discourse to be inclusive of ideas and artists that are often marginalized, Higgs’ curatorial choices are actively challenging, foregoing accessibility to forefront the deeper concepts and intentions of the work.
Rae’s deft handling of color and robust, graphic quality are inevitably alluring. Exhibiting her work in series, though, offers a path beyond the most obvious, striking qualities to consider the complexities beneath that aesthetic; the repetition of her ongoing, intricate engagement with representation, abstraction and the commingling of patterns creates a context to experience its impact within individual works.
Rae engages the task of observing each phenomenon of her chosen source material and responding in her singular vision on a saturated, flat surface - not finessed, but with determination, principle, and a complex approach to abstraction. This is the elusive distinction in contemporary art between stylized illustration and the sacred process historically known as painting. There is a trust in and commitment to the source material - not the intention to create an improved version of the image through style or voice, but to engage in a brand of alchemy by passing it through the processes of observation, interpretation, and mark-making to produce a work that isn’t a version of any of those things, but rather all three rendered down into a clarified new object, possessing qualities of the original source, the materials, and Rae’s experience. The alchemy of Rae’s drawings produces a paradox. Surfaces appear on the verge of collapsing into a chaos of shapes and colors, while simultaneously maintaining an inexplicable focus.
Jon Blatchford, a Maine-based painter intimately familiar with this sort of alchemy, elaborates on the details of Rae’s abstractions following a visit to Rae’s show at White Columns:
These works have the familiar, contemporary language of advertisements, and recognizable photographic qualities as well. However, those characteristics are entirely upended- unfamiliar. The abstraction taking place here is nothing short of remarkable. There were so many brilliant decisions that were made while making these drawings. Passages like those in a drawing of a Chanel ad, where two women pose on a sunlit lawn. The floral pattern of their dresses becomes a plane of curving, zig-zagging blue marks which don’t bisect one another, they rather segment the base color of the dress into discrete sections which loosely echo a fabric pattern, the surrounding landscape (similarly abstracted), and the form of the figures. Not quite flattened, a lacy portion of a dress is recognizable as it’s form and transparency dissolve when it blends into the rest of the figure. An arm is wearing diamonds and holds a small handbag in the bottom right. It’s part of the seated figure, but just barely it seems. In another image, two figures pose in the neon and shadows of an urban view at night. The figures and their fashion is again segmented and abstracted, blending into the scene. It’s patterns, color, tone, and form all mixed-up. What’s incredible is how nearly everything reads as it’s reference- knee-high boots read as shiny black leather- except we’re reading the reflection of the lights in the scene, we’re reading the form as contorted. We see the abstraction and the reference simultaneously.
As White Columns’ Director and Curator, Higgs has championed the inclusion of artists with disabilities for many years, particularly those supported by progressive art studios. Instrumental in Creative Growth’s emergence in the art market, White Columns has hosted the debut solo exhibitions of several of their artists, including William Scott in 2006, Dan Miller in 2007, Aurie Ramirez in 2011, and Judith Scott’s sculptures posthumously in 2010. NIAD’s Marlon Mullen also had his first New York solo show at the space in 2012, previous to gaining representation by JTT. In recent years, Higgs has visited various progressive art studios throughout the country and supported their artists as well, such as Dale Jackson of Visionaries and Voices and Joe Howe of Gateway Arts.
White Columns shares, in its philosophy and intentions, a commitment to the same core principle of inclusivity which is the genesis of progressive art studios and the core of the disability rights movement as a whole. In conversation with Andrew Goldstein for Artspace, Higgs described it in this way:
It just seems to me that there are a lot more voices out there than historically represented...and we have an opportunity here to at least privilege some of these different voices. I think we have a lot to learn from this cacophony of different voices, because I think the art world can become quite narrow, whereas it should be opposite—it should be completely porous, and much more embracing of other ways of working and artists with different intentions, motivations, and histories. That makes it more complex, and more interesting.
Helen Rae is on view through October 21st.