[Jessica Helfand] One wall of my studio in Rome is covered with drawings and paintings of abstracted line studies. On the opposite wall are a series of portraits. For weeks now, I have been agonizing over the obvious split here — half the work representational, the other half decidedly in the realm of the nonobjective — proof of the apparently irresolvable tensions in my thinking and in my work. And then last week, it hit me: They’re all portraits.
The portraits of real people (I’m working my way through the Fellows here at the American Academy) are all based on photographs. The basic goal here was to teach myself how, quite literally, to carve form from color rather than from line. The paintings themselves originate with iPhone photos, which I “paint” over, using Brushes. Then, having studied them carefully this way, I paint them in gouache on paper.
To go from these studies to the essentially untethered arena of abstract form is huge paradigm shift. But if you consider the portrait in looser terms — as, say, a snapshot of an entire life — then the line takes on a different kind of meaning.
Thinking about this — specifically, of the line as a symbolic representation of life — I remember that in Vietnam, these simple, spiral-like woven baskets are used to suspend incense from the ceilings of temples. The shape is meant to represent eternity, and I have been playing with this form repeatedly these last weeks.
It occurred to me that when gravitating from two to three dimensions, the line itself becomes a thread. I did a little research and found that in ancient Greece, the three fates — or the Moirae, as they are sometimes known — governed the metaphorical thread of life for every mortal being from birth until death. One of them spun, another measured and the third cut the thread.
Above: The Three Fates, attributed to Jacob Matham. Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
So if the thread — as the dimensional evocation of a line — is symbolically life itself, why can’t it qualify as a kind of portrait?
I began experimenting in the studio with thread, wire and string. Cheap, graceful, yet in their own way unruly, these ribbon-like tools seemed a fitting material for exploration. The line/thread as a binding mechanism led me to study shrouds and the way bodies are wrapped for burial (how can you really visualize life without understanding something about death?), and soon I was working with clay and cloth, sculpting miniature mollusks and mummies.
While the majority of my sketches have remained formally abstract, I recently began a series of collages comprised of things I have found (mostly on the streets) here in Rome: torn playing cards, cancelled stamps, even someone’s war medal. This new body of work — which I call Peripheral Identities — borrows obliquely from my work on scrapbooks and clearly gestures to my insatiable interest in peoples’ lives.
Mostly, though, it hinges on what little we can discern of a biography from someone’s ID cards — the most truncated and fundamentally abstract form of identity. At once off-puttingly remote and endearingly poignant, these documents lie somewhere between mug shots and passports. (They’re also rather theatrically endowed with what I consider a kind of bloated authority — particularly in Italy where official documents are unilaterally adorned with multiple stamps.) Stitched together with string, they become pictorial epitaphs, lyrical gestures in which I can only imagine the identities of the people represented. And how can a portrait — any portrait — aspire to more than this?
Jessica Helfand is a partner, with William Drenttel, in Winterhouse, a design studio in Connecticut. Their work focuses on publishing and editorial development; new media; and cultural, educational and literary institutions. She is currently senior critic at Yale School of Art and is the author of several books, including Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture and Reinventing the Wheel. She has also written Paul Rand: American Modernist. For those interested in the history of visual culture, we highly recommend her Scrapbooks: An American History.