Every once in a while you come across the work of an artist that somehow eludes you while being crystal clear at the same time. That's when you know that something special is happening. Dutch artist Wieteke Heldens, now staying at Fluxfactory, has been producing work for some years now that is at the same time beautiful, funny, seemingly futile and most disquieting.
I have rarely seen work by a painter so consistently inconsistent in 'style'. With each work she seems to reinvent herself, almost as if her life depends on it and I mean that only partly as a metaphor. Many artists deal in their work with their inner feelings, it could even be maintained that in fact each work of art is (also) a self-portrait. But on the canvas - or whatever material is used - it becomes an aesthetic problem, in the process of being made the artwork transforms itself into an autonomous presence, as it were. But in some rare cases the created distance between personal experience and transformed artistic statement is extremely small and one can feel that even if the exact meaning of the visual image isn't completely clear in the sense that one can describe it in terms of emblems and symbols.
Wieteke Heldens' paintings can show a blue dress on an otherwise white plane, or a head of a Panda bear, or a few large white letters like holes in a black 'background', or a number of partly intertwining, fragile lines which seem lost in an otherwise empty environment or small hatched lines constituting different planes which seem to feel uncomfortable with each other from a sense of balanced colours in a composition. In all these cases - and there are many more - nothing seems wrong at first sight while at closer inspection everything seems twisted, unsettling, brought together to cause a feeling of uneasiness - or, rather, they are the very incarnation of uneasiness. This brings a kind of alarming urgency to these painting that is almost physically painful and one can only conclude that they actually originate in some kind of existential pain, the pain of being in a world which is unsafe, uncertain, unstable and, indeed, often hurtful. One can then interpret this on different levels varying from the deeply personal to the universal condition of globalized culture.
The classic example of a great painter tormented by obsessions is, of course, Van Gogh. Indeed Wieteke Heldens may in this regard be a distant relative of the earlier Dutch master. Her works show us hardly disguised raw nerves, what we see in these paintings is someone trying to cope with existence and in that sense they read like a diary of pain. Yet this work is never melodramatic, it doesn't evoke compassion; rather it invites us to look into the mirror and recognize ourselves and our own existential struggles which are defining moment of the human condition. So the personal does actually acquire universal meaning and in a way it also offers some comfort just like there is a certain comfort in obsessions and compulsions: they are essentially efforts to not only conjure up but also exorcize the demons. The head of the Panda bear, for instance, may represent both an image (a portrait, if you like) of a demon and a picture of a soft cuddly toy that can magically ward off danger.
So if these paintings often represent primal fear and terror, they at the same time provide their own therapy. And isn't art indeed also therapeutic in the broadest sense of the word, a source and portrait of sorrow and pain as well as comfort and sanity? Isn't this what, in the end, the human condition is about: about being expelled from paradise and wholeness and about finding ways of coping with that situation?