Two cautionary notes before experiencing Myron Helfgott’s sprawling, fresh (in every sense of the word), and exhilarating exhibition at Gallery A in Shockoe Slip: Eat your Wheaties and allow yourself plenty of time.
Helfgott is an intriguing and prolific artist who’s exhibited here for 42 years. He’s retired from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Fine Arts, where he taught and was acting chairman of its esteemed sculpture department. And not unimportantly, he’s an essential habitué of the local contemporary art scene. On this Gallery A outing he puts you through your paces while he examines life’s complexities, ironies and absurdities using a broad range of media.
But beware: Like elegant and realistic stage sets or cheap sight gags, many of the 30-some pieces crammed into the gallery’s two levels aren’t necessarily what they seem.
Take the 10-foot high “Door,” for example, which serves as a spoke around which the main floor installation rotates. What appears to be an exquisitely carved, stone baroque exterior door surround — embellished with a lion head, cartouche and classically muscular torsos — is, on closer inspection, neither heroic in its materials nor construction. Helfgott employs such decidedly lowbrow materials as photocopies on paper attached to a lightweight, supporting plywood frame to depict a handsome Parisian doorway. Architectonic, precise, plywood grids support this and many of Helfgott’s sculptures and show his time spent in the 1950s and ’60s studying with R. Buckminster Fuller, famous for his geodesic frameworks.
Photocopies on wooden frames also are the means by which he delivers “Water,” a tightly cropped image of the light-tipped ripples of the River Seine (a knockout) and “Desk,” a full-scale replica of a working roll-top desk in need of some organization.
So it isn’t Helfgott’s choice of materials, but delivering information as quickly and efficiently — and still beautifully — that challenges him. The artist acknowledged as much a number of years ago in a published interview with the late Pinckney Near, curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “I am not particularly interested in investigating materials,” he said. “I use whatever is available to do the job.”
If Helfgott achieves high-low results with his sculptural pieces, he also offers up theater of the absurd in 10 photographs (mostly shot in Paris), and in a series of 17 collagelike drawings that line the gallery walls. But his audio-visual installation piece, “Nick & Tina,” is especially wacky. Again, it isn’t exactly what it seems. At first glance this is a grouping of friends vacationing: the artist posing with a male and female couple straight out of Jersey Shore (albeit bottle blondes). On the accompanying voice-over, however, Helfgott — channeling Leonard Cohen — introduces us to a brother and sister he met on a flight between Detroit and Miami. The alcohol-induced, bosomed and pierced Tina asks Helfgott about the last time he had sex. Nick explains that he wants to lose weight. OK, you get the idea.
Gravitas, however, reigns on the gallery’s lower level. Here, while a prerecorded utterance emanates — “one more word and out you go” — the viewer must maneuver a graveyardlike environment scattered with hundreds of printed obituaries of those who have gone. The deceased were of high achievement: Aaron Spelling, John DeLorean, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Bobby Fisher and Richmond’s Dika Newlin. But despite the collective brilliance, Helfgott reduces their existences to a few paragraphs, each imprinted on lowly newsprint, and copy paper.
Helgott’s message in “Obits,” and throughout this showing, is clear: Life is short and nobody’s great. Or maybe that’s not what he’s suggesting. Perhaps greatness is achievable and our lives allow us time to make positive advances. In any event, keep it simple, keep it whimsical.
If you ever wondered how an artist thinks, processes ideas and approaches material, this stunning exhibit will shed some light.
The works of Myron Heffgott will be on display at Gallery A, 114-A Virginia St., through March 21. For information, go to gallerya.biz or call 771-5454.