Art in America
June 01, 1995
Helen Miranda Wilson
by Lilly Wei
Helen Miranda Wilson's recent paintings on panel—intensely seen and felt, flooded with an evocative light—are once again exquisitely rendered representations of the world in miniature, her preferred scale. In her hands the most modest of formats, here rarely exceeding 12 inches on a side, can hold its own with the epic canvases of the Luminists. What has changed in the new work, however, is her subject matter and style. Wilson continues to paint the panoramic—distant hills, fields, water, sky—but she now also includes closer views of nature, interiors and still lifes, allowing her gifts even greater play.
The works shown here also include an overt human presence, where before it was only implied. Nature is literally filtered through the body, as fine line drawings of a woman's face, feet, hands or naked breasts and sex are strung like a delicate web across the surface. In other instances, the text of a letter, the outlines of a transparent envelope, a length of rope or row of cornstalks is superimposed on a scene in a manner resembling photomontage.
Suggested by the pictures and poems etched into the windowpanes of her childhood home, this conflationary device is perhaps more effective in the mind's eye than it is transposed to the paintings, where it can seem forced and sometimes irritating. I want to rub my eyes, brush away the web, open the window. Yet, I suppose that is the point: what we see is impeded, partial and subjective.
Wilson's depictive powers continue to enchant. Low Bush is a jumble of textures and colors— richly hued wild blueberries, brilliant green stems and leaves, dry grass, brown earth, overlaid by a crystal plate, spoon and napkin. This scene for a woodland repast beguiles by the sheer beauty and facticity of its drawing, the way a Durer does. Ghost of a Hope is similar in composition: a phantom hand holding four small Egyptian onion bulbs in its palm hovers over a still life of ripe, speckled pears.
Wilson's simplest tableaux, though, are still the best. Three Years, dedicated to Chekhov, projects a crystalline stalk against a dreamy nocturnal sky. Its scale uncertain, the seedling soars upward beyond the moon, past a single star and a line of clouds. In a scene reminiscent of Magritte, Chance of Ram depicts the top branches of a tree with a scroll of apple peel enigmatically suspended above it in the overcast skies. The reference here is homespun: if you remove an apple's peel in an unbroken strip and drop it to the ground, it will form your true love's initial.
Based on the biographical, the literary, the elliptical, these paintings seem full of stories. The effect is almost aural, as if the layerings are voice-overs that speak of love and loss, desire and its sublimation, solitude and intimacy, memory and custom. While departing here from the simple, luminous images her admirers have come to expect, Wilson remains intriguing. What she does, no one does better.
Helen Miranda Wilson