Artistic Vision Built Piece by Piece
FIFTEEN years ago I sat on my front stoop on Benefit Street in Providence, R.I., waiting for Bruce. It was early Sunday morning and we weren't going to play golf. We were heading 40 minutes north into Massachusetts to the Norton flea market, which promised just about anything to an incurable collector and his eager apprentice. Bruce Helander was then the youngest dean of academic affairs that the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) would probably ever have. A mere 31. I was just a young painter recently graduated from that institution. And Bruce had been showing me something about beauty and art that I wouldn't encounter anywhere else. These days things are a little different. Bruce Helander left behind the long halls of academia to play hardball in the very market-oriented art world of the 1980s. He became an art dealer. Despite the big switch, however, it is worth noting that he hasn't changed; he is still an artist, and always has been. Bruce Helander makes collages, working with paper with a vision as crisp as a sunny autumn morning. "Essentially I've decided to stick with collage over the last 15 years," Helander says over the horn from the back office of his New York gallery, (he also owns a gallery in Palm Beach, Fla.). I think that it goes back to an early interest in discovery ... just like the flea market days ... . Part of the fun of making art was the search and inevitable discovery of a raw material that one incorporates into the work. I have an innate love for collecting objects. The same kind of thing happens with the pap er. You search, and then you have the joy of discovery... ." Helander explains the process, which he links to Abstract Expressionism. "You start with a simple gesture, and in my case with a favorite fragment. I'm always looking for old magazines, posters that have been torn and ripped, things that have a kind of built-in patina to them. So the initial process is one provocative, intriguing fragment of paper that usually starts in the middle of the page. "My concern is to try to find ways to integrate different pieces of paper whose lines, or texture, or color, are married to the adjacent pieces of paper, and then a collage starts to develop that has a certain rhythm, that has a certain color balance, and that is mildly narrative but always abstract. "The final phase in all my work is that kind of light sanding of the paper. Because since the paper is glued down one on top of each other, when you lightly sand the paper the ghost image of what you originally put down seeps to the surface just very briefly, and adds to the complication of the composition... ." When I asked Helander what was in the works, he told me he hoped to find a way to make the collages larger. Doing it through the print medium might be one way to go, literally blowing them up. As they stand now, however, they are rarely more than 15 inches tall. That, he explains, is because collage is traditionally an intimate medium. It is about the way the paper is handled. It is a private affair, up close, an eyeful. As important as paper and its intimacy are, they aren't what we normally associate with this artist's other love, Abstract Expressionism. While that movement was nothing if not imposing, it was never funny, and Helander's work is nothing if not that. While he is true to the overall oneness of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, its intellectual and emotional triumph of a unity of form, he cannot help but indulge his affinity for goofing off. Helander has an unshakeable mischievous streak. Bruce Helander has always had to work. Being an artist isn't cheap; just visit an art supply store and try to buy a tube of red paint. He has always applied his creativity to making a living. While raising a family he worked in admissions at RISD and went for his masters at the same time. Then, as an administrator, he put together education programs at the school that quickly became a major part of what it offers today. AFTER leaving RISD, he published an art journal, the now defunct but very lively Art Express. It was once doomed without a wealth of wealth. Today he has settled in Florida and has opened a gallery, but he still doesn't see his studio until after a crazy day of wheeling and dealing. Past midnight, in the little studio next to his home just off the beach, Helander gets down to making art. He wouldn't have it any other way. As personal as his work is, there is a spirit to it that is the beneficiary of his curiosity, his openness, his love of beauty and art. It makes his small work very, very large. "My collages are not something that anyone who is really interested in can possibly pass by and have a look and nod and walk on to the next one. My collages are one-to-one confrontations between the viewer and the image, and require a reading... . "The biggest thrill, really, is seeing the collage come together, because you really can't have a preconceived notion of what it's going to be. One piece of paper dictates what the next piece of paper should be. Once it's done, the excitement is over. You can never remember the enjoyment of the race. You go on to the next one. That's what keeps me working. That discovery, you know, is right around the corner, and you'll never find it unless you dig in." Bruce Helander masters his collages with wit, experience, and style. His is the unrivaled eye. His compositions toy, they entertain, they surprise, they awe. They float, they dive, they reveal, they conceal. They show us maps, patterns, typography, ads, and photographs from a virtually forgotten place in time, a lost face of America. Bruce Helander boasts a collection of old printed paper that could last him several lifetimes. When you consider that his collages are made from what he has found and rescue d, it makes them that much more beautiful, more special.