"Alpine Artist Exhibits Found Treasures in Marfa Gallery" - by Marlys Hersey, Editor
Publish Date: September 3, 2009  |  Big Bend Gazette

I wanted to change my lifestyle. Having lived for almost 60 years in North American, European, and Australian cities, I wanted to live in a quieter place. [In 2006] I visited Alpine for Gallery Night. I loved the mountains, the landscape, I got to know some of the people…. A year later I sold my house in San Antonio, and moved here, and I love it. The support I’ve felt with my new friends in Alpine is amazing. And I love the cultural stimulation of Marfa.
Oh, yeah, and the weather is nice, too.
— Bärbel Helmert, artist

Given Bärbel Helmert’s zeal for her new life in West Texas and her long career as an artist working in many mediums, her “Western Series” assemblages – all sorts of found materials, displayed in 6.5” x 6.5” shadow boxes – just make sense.

And now, they will finally be exhibited locally, at the Greasewood Gallery at the Hotel Paisano, in Marfa, from September 4 through November 8.

One can also spend a lot of time trying to better understand these intriguing little works of art. Though small, each of the roughly 50 assemblages Helmert has created contains a world unto itself.

Which is exactly Helmert’s intent. “Sure, in every [work of art] I do, there is meaning, but I want the viewers to find it for themselves…. It’s not important to understand [my intent]. It’s important for them… to have their own reaction to what I see.” Which is also the reason she purposely does not title her works.

Just one shadow box assemblage, for example, contains an artistic coming together of wire mesh, which Helmertfound behind a garage in Alpine, some pieces of mica, a tiny watercolor painting Helmert did years ago, and some lovely little circular plastic thingys, in two colors, dangling off wires attached to the mesh.

Oh, yes, and if you look carefully, you will also find a perfectly preserved fly. I have seen a photo of this particular assemblage a few times now, but she had to call my attention to it when I visited Helmert in her Alpine home, in late August. “Did you notice the FLY?” she asked eagerly, in her German accent, giggling.

I am tempted to call these artworks collages, but, Helmert educates me: collages are two-dimensional, while assemblages are 3-D. To be in Helmert’s company is to always be learning.

A mutual friend introduced me to Helmert just after she moved to Alpine, two years ago in August. I am going to make a safe bet here, in claiming that probably anyone in Alpine who has met Barbel, remembers her. The international artist is extremely outgoing, enthusiastic, irreverent, and curious. Little things excite her, things that go unnoticed or unappreciated by many others (like the perfect circle of roots and dirt exposed by our freshly-moved stock tank in the backyard).

Naturally, then, her assemblages are curious mélanges of oft-overlooked elements.

“I enjoy finding all these things around here. The desert just has such a richness of art supplies…. I have used some things that scare me, too: parts of snakes, spiders, insects. … Oh, and stipa grass — I love stipa grass! It’s sticky, so you can attach things to it without too much difficulty.”

She picks up an assemblage as illustration; it contains what looks like hay with little red pieces of plastic. “See? That’s stipa with my acupuncture needles in it.” Who’da thunk it? The assemblage is clearly more than just the sum of its parts.

“Not only do I have fun making them,” says Helmert, “but also they represent my new life… I have lived and traveled all over the world. I wanted peace and quietness…. Living here has made me so happy and I want to express that.”

In addition to Helmert’s newest creations, visitors to the Greasewood Gallery will also have the opportunity to view some of the artist’s riveting photographs taken nearly a decade ago. The large portraits of people in Angola and in India were captured when she worked as assistant to her late husband, filmmaker Gerard Dolan, on his documentary for CARE, “The Last Child in the Global Race to End Polio,” which “looks at the few remaining countries in the world suffering with polio.”

The large photographs are giclees, which, I also learn from Helmert, are “high-quality, digital photos, printed in archival inks on hand-made paper.”

When I ask how Helmert arrives at a particular combination of elements in any given work, she is a bit hard-pressed to explain. “The creativity comes from within. It’s like magic.” Though she resorts to a German phrase, “aus dem Bauch raus,” her hand gestures make clear her intent: from the gut.

The artist is very clear, however, that in the creative process she tries hard to avoid preconceived ideas, or planning, favoring spontaneity and letting go. “I love the process of experimenting… I know when it’s good and when the piece is finished…. It’s absolutely the best feeling.”

The Greasewood Gallery at the Hotel Paisano presents “Lost + Found: Assemblages and Photo Giclees” by BarbelHelmert from September 4 – November 8. An added bonus: you can meet the artist, herself, at the opening reception on Friday, September 4 from 6-8 pm at the gallery, 207 N. Highland in Marfa. For more info, call 432.729.4134

PUBLICATIONS  Immaculate Happenstance
The Assemblages of Bärbel Helmert

  Duality, ambivalence, contradiction, paradox - these threads of balances that posit certainty only in the uncertain - are hallmarks of our nuclear age. So perhaps, to view Barble Helmert's assemblages it would be best to see them in pairs. Except, of course, that the balances are within each one. Helmert manages in a small square with a limited pallette and the junk drawer’s happenstance of materials small enough for art but not repair, to contain not just one action, but also its equal and opposite reaction, in a remarkable physics of give and take.

   To be more specific, Helmert's assemblages gather, construct, connect, and establish order, only then to have a brush thick with white paint cover it over, leaving intimations of earlier order and a surface that is expressive and mute at the same time. It gives a surface tension of a very different sort. And the contradictions that should be untenable are somehow made tangible.

  There is a delicacy, spontaneity, and immediacy to the constructions - an immaculateness of impulse met with the happenstance of materials, an openness to what may come, to what needs to be combined, attached, related. No doctrinaire dada-ist or shifty surrealist, Helmert is far more interested in materiality and tactility. Her work is closer in spirit to Lenore Tawney, Dominic Di Mare, Anne Ryan, and Agnes Denes, than to Duchamp, or even Cornell.

   We have, I think, in this last century and now, become dependent on, expectant of large gestures, of expanse and open-armed embrace. We have come to believe all emotional responses burst the seams of simple saying, but Barbel Helmert's assemblages prove us wrong. With a clockmaker's delight in the intricate
      tiny mechanisms, we plumb complexity, ambiguity, expanses of deep human emotion or monumental constructs of human thought in each small square. Like Michael Snow's experimental film WAVELENGTH, which moves into a room and into an image on the wall of the room, and finally is lost, or found in the world within the world that is the picture, waves, the experience of Helmert's assemblages can be dizzying.

   In each small simple square there is each gesture and construction, each choice and acquiescence, each initial impulse and the blanketing of the evidence of each impulse, each blanketing and each corner, tear in the surface left uncovered. There is, time and again, a whole continent adrift in a multi-faceted story still unfolding.

   Geometries at odds with swirlings and counter-geometries, bits of color, screens and threads and pieces all of which seem to be moving or have moved - this is a world without moorings, tricked but not snared in screens and nets and enclosures. A sonorous deep blue peeks out from under a wave of white, as if Yves Klein had lost his way and fallen into another century’s ditch. It breaks your heart. It cries and wails in the monochromatic field it peeks out from. The limits of size, of color, of form, simply serve to highlight small variations, to heighten the impact of the slightest shift.

   In these small sure squares which conceal and reveal at the same time, there is unmistakable presence, and aching absence, yet the covering over is not absence at all, but another assertion, another presence - something like a chorus, something like  visual resonance. Helmert claims the pieces reflect a re verence for the subtleties of everyday reality- so one might look at a group of these assemblages as pages from a daybook, notations, a record of the immediate, with its own immediacy.
Her gatherings are metaphoric, lightly leaping, like haiku - all presence, breath, calligraphs, symbols, and syllables. They assert, each one, connections made and unmade, the singular impulse of the assembler, artist, maker, to see and to relate, to touch and to be touched, to experience the fold and fall of the materials themselves, even as something else is unfolding.

Paradoxically, in a world filled with objects and devastatingly empty, the role of the artist is clear. This creating of objects, arranging and selecting and constructing, without grander gesture than the moment, creating from, of, with, in the moment, to capture some of it, even if only for a moment only to let it go again, thrown back into the stream and silvering away, elusive but not illusory.

Jim LaVilla-Havelin  11/05