Profile + Pictures by Matt Moment

The disparate traditions of American folk art and color field painting are unified at the hands of the Cooperstown-based artist Tracy Helgeson. Using her photographs as a reference for lighting and structure, Helgeson realizes sparse landscape images that are energized by her superlative command of color. Her works in Vanishing Point, a group exhibition of landscapes at Carrie Haddad Gallery, build upon her oeuvre with some of her most chromatically sophisticated pictures to date.


Born in Rochester, a city in southeast Minnesota, Helgeson would go on to study graphic design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Initially, she avoided the painting department because “at that time, everybody was painting abstract,” she said. That was 1983. After a year and a half in Minneapolis, Helgeson transferred to the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), where she refined her technical abilities as a student of illustration. A painting from Helgeson’s college years still hangs in her studio — it’s a portrait of an older woman rendered realistically, but not without exquisite painterly liberties. However, it was the ‘80s, meaning Helgeson favored realism at a time when the style was not particularly fashionable.


The responsibilities of marriage and motherhood took precedence over Helgeson’s art for a number of years thereafter, though she never could quite shake the impetus to create. Beginning in the early aughts, once her children were old enough to go to school, Helgeson recommitted her attention to painting. Remarkably, it was “almost immediately” after returning to her practice that Helgeson engineered the visual language with which she makes pictures to this day. “I had never painted a landscape. In college, landscape paintings were like this,” she said, miming an exorcism. But when she started painting again, that was the subject she felt most compelled to explore.

To Helgeson’s oil-on-wood paintings, the rural topography of central New York is less a subject than a directive for the arrangement of color. This is well exemplified by works like “An October Day,” which employ the basic infrastructure of the landscape — a discernible foreground, horizon, and sky — without the addition of buildings or plant life. Spared the predominance of a resolute subject, Helgeson’s searing swaths of paint resound in a chorus of color (not unlike an early-‘50s Rothko).


But the same can be said for her pictures with barns and trees and spherical shrubs and even, to some extent, her portraits. More often than not, Helgeson’s subjects are but vehicles for her illustrious palette. In her imagination, barns impose their angular flamboyance on the landscape in blocks of improbable color — not a report of something seen, but an estimation of something felt. The foliage crowning each tree behaves like a flame on its wick, its incandescence dwarfed only by the smoldering imprimatura. Yet it is her rare portraits that evidence this principle most convincingly. Take for instance Helgeson’s 2011 painting, “Angel in the Morning,” which communicates a persona without need for explicitly rendered features. Instead, the artist deploys a cabal of saccharine pinks to evoke her subject’s essential spirit.

The vividness of Helgeson’s colors is amplified by her signature red underpainting, which she exposes at the edge of her panels to create a thin border. This demarcation is not merely decorative; Helgeson uses the perimeter to establish a chromatic bass note. It is the anchor, so to speak, for color relationships, containing the picture while unifying its values. She loops in a countermelody by preparing the canvas with two coats of gesso applied in gestural strokes; this yields an understated texture that catches and holds light in its shallow grooves, affecting the picture relative to the position of its viewer. And as a final touch, Helgeson carves writing into the top layer of pigment, further obscuring the modesty of her landscapes. This action exposes her red underpainting in a frail cursive made intentionally illegible — a message suspended in limbo between artist and viewer.


Bearing all this in mind, Helgeson’s assertion that she “strives for simplicity” seems a bit dubious. More accurately, she is a master in balancing simplicity with enigma. They are the inconspicuous elements of Helgeson’s paintings that ultimately allow the viewer to behold her nonliteral use of texture and color.



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