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Expression within our grasp

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The hand is a figure rich in associations. Colloquially, we use it as a metaphor for the skills of an artist, or for a person's general competence (as in the expression "to try one's hand" at something). The hand recurs in modern sculpture, both as a surrogate for the whole human figure, and as a symbol for the tactile sense, which sculpture is supposed to address aesthetically.

In Ralph Helmick's recent work, "Watching the Meteors," we can discern another familiar significance of the hand, evoked by novel means. By drilling holes of various sizes randomly into the surface of his figure, Helmick arouses our imagination of the celestial realm. In this way, he gets us to think of the hand in the context of vast stretches of space and time, where our slightest actions really transpire. It is ths context which then brings to mind the hand as a symbol of paleontological human evolution, and of the human race within the wide universe of possible beings. Helmick further invokes the cosmic context by giving this sculpture a base, or ground plane, which seems to be at rest and in motion at the same time. This paradoxical quality, achieved by the jigsaw cuts which seem to create a field of veering arrowheads, suggests first the relativistic view of events, according to which everything we see as still would appear to be in motion if viewed from a different spatial frame of reference. Secondly, the base gives visual form to the disparity between the sculpture's bulk as a static physical object (the hand is considerably larger than life-size) and its weightlessness as an object of thought.

Ralph Helmick belongs to a generation of American artists, now beginning to mature, for whom minimal art was once authoritative. His work may be called "post-minimalist" for two reasons, besides chronology. The first is that he reintroduced qualities, such as levity and figuration, once banished from sculpture by minimal art theory. The second is that, while carrying forward the minimalist precept, he leaves undisguised the materials and operations involved in making a work. Thus Helmick's hand results from stacking (and gluing) many template-cut sections of hardboard and another synthetic material known as MD 44 . He has derived ambiguous and expressive qualities from fabrication procedures that are not supposed to be expressive. The laminate structure of the hand, for example, results in a striation that is more than decorative. Thought its physical presence is imposing, the hand looks like it is being manifested, as if futuristically, through an electronic visual medium. Helmick has made the most of the rhetorical nature of the sculptural figure. For he has made it bear upon the historical situation in which media and information systems have begun to reorder the relations between physical and non-physical realities.


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