Conscious Recognition

by: Jenna Gonzalez

September 2005



"You can't show anyone anything he hasn't seen already, on some level - any more than you can tell anyone anything he doesn't already know. It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprised recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know that he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition." ~ William S. Burroughs (1914- 1997)

Throughout my life I have managed to find moments of hauntingly beautiful points of escape- moments that have christened me into an artistic religion based on the principles of recognition. Art is faith, it is challenging people to believe. There are many points in life that are beautiful- however, at times when one revisits them (if one has the rare opportunity to revisit one, such as an acclaimed film), one can find flaws. However, these are not the type of flaws that are objectively marked. These are the flaws that stir one to step back and think, this is not nearly as good as I remembered it to be. True beauty is the point one can recognize that remains just as challenging as it does exquisite through different stages in ones life. In a sense, the beauty has become an altruistic state, a state of charity- a donation to the progress of one’s life. Every time I have revisited a piece of Gottfried Helnwein’s work, I am privileged to say it has improved my life and has inspired me to watch and listen all the more delicately, how to become elusive while efficacious.

Helnwein’s choice in subject matter in relation to space, time, and size is truly what sets him a part from the norm. I was first introduced to his work in a Details magazine article with Sean Penn. In it Penn stated, “I've made it a conscious effort to not analyze anything I love too much. And I love this art, and for me part of the reason is a professional reason - for me as somebody who aspires to creativity myself. When you find someone in the arts, whether it's in your medium or in another medium, that raises the bar for you, that reinvigorates your own pursuit of affecting people and out of a sharing what you count on as some kind of a common chord in us. Whether it's through imagery, words or sounds. As an artist my strongest reaction to Helnwein's work is that it challenges me to be better at what I do. There are very few people that achieve utter excellence in what they do”. After reading this, my mother looked up photos of his work online. She printed a photograph of "Kindskopf" (Head of a Child) . It is a portrait of a young child with her eyes closed, a chalky residue streams over her face in the most delicate of pastels. The portrait is of the most magnanimous of size. This particular photo was so compelling to me that I thrusted myself at my computer and began discovering more of his work. His work brings attention to the areas of child abuse, Nazism, political and religious motivation, and death versus awakening. “You can change something with aesthetics, you can get things moving in a very subtle way, you can get even the powerful and strong to slide and totter, anything actually if you know the weak points and tap at them ever so gently by aesthetic means. My art is not giving answers," says Helnwein. "It is asking questions”.

After further examining his work on my computer, I left . . . heart racing several beats faster, fingers tingling. Helnwein reminded me how to feel. It was like the first time I saw a Fellini film or slipped into Tom Ford attire. There was a sense of confidence instilled, a confidence in being human, the confidence to find power through mistake, the confidence to admit to cease yearning for perfection. Rather, redefining perfection to the state of recognizing my humanity, my possibility. As Alber Elbaz once stated, “Perfection scares me because after perfection nothing is left.”

After this night, I sought more moments of Helnwein. I went to the Los Angeles Opera house to watch Helnwein’s work as an art director and costume designer for the German piece Der Rosenkavalier. The opera was set in three acts, each act having a completely different color scheme- blue, yellow, and red. The sets and clothing greatly played with proportion, an exaggeration of heights, angles, and widths. The choice of subject matter is unusual. The story originally took place in the end of the Baroque period. Helnwein took the elements of this period and updated it so that it reflected Rococo in a Hollywood atmosphere. Helnwein stated: “The fashions of the time were entirely over the top - people wearing masks, playing roles and staging themes. But for many it was also a time of social injustice, exploitation and intolerance. Marie Antoinette, for example, was obsessed with the idea of pretending to be a simple and innocent peasant girl. Her husband built her an entire life-sized fantasy farmhouse and mill with sheep, shepherds and all - and an idealistic landscape shaped around it. Dressed in theatrical shepherdess attire, she could now play "innocent country folk" with her girlfriends. Everyday life was staged, completely dedicated to one thing: aesthetics. The presence of Eros (love) and death was evident in everything. Visually, I wanted to capture the spirit of the period, and yet also reflect the present era in which the opera is re-created. All the great paintings of historic themes were depicted in the style of the times when the artists painted them. So, I think it is important that you can see that this is a production from the 21st century, and that it takes place in Los Angeles, a city which I find fascinating for many reasons. The influence of film culture cannot be overestimated and I feel there is a strong commonality between Hollywood and the Rococo. (Los Angeles Opera)

It was this altering of common ground, of a distinguished decade, that was so riveting to me. To create an entirely new world within a world of familiarity was incredibly striking to me. It is something that I wish to emulate as a filmmaker. It is as though the artist is guiding us through their work by the hand and releasing us when ready, isolation through familiarity. Art does not need to be something of a prestigious nature, if people can relate to your work even in a negative light you have succeeded as your role as an artist. As Helnwein states on the Los Angeles Opera site, “My philosophy when I approach any project is that it must pass a certain test: All art, no matter how sophisticated, avant-garde or advanced, must still have the ability to touch and move a human being, no matter how naive and uneducated in art. Art must excite, amaze or shock, startle or inspire. If it is only intellectual, if one has to have a degree in art history to understand it, then it fails”.

One particular article from The Book LA, struck a deep connection with my philosophy on art. In the article, Gottfried discusses a collection at a publishing house in which many people were in uproar. One painting dealing with Hitler was quite controversial. The painting- titled Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi) is that of the Madonna and Child surrounded by SS officers. Says Helnwein, “A newspaper editor called me very upset. He said, ’when I saw your work I was convinced you were insane. After talking to you, I think you’re probably normal, so how could you do something like that? I couldn’t sleep for days, I have this stupid picture in my head all the time, It’s horrible. I asked him, ‘have you been in the last war?’ He said yes. ‘Did you kill people?’ Yes. ‘Did you see people die?’ Yes. ‘Could you sleep?’ He said yes. I said, ‘isn’t it interesting that you have no problem with all that, but then you see a picture and you know what that is? It’s a piece of paper with tiny particles on it - an illusion in two dimensions and you can’t sleep. What I found is it’s not my picture that is the problem for these people, it’s their own pictures, back in their head.”

It marvels me when people try to distinguish lines between reality and illusion in relation to their effect in the world. I thought it was so appropriate for an artist to simply state that pictures are not problems for people, rather it is their own pictures. This illusion, the illusion we live in daily of making beliefs and promises to ourselves and others is completely defined by our relation between the third and two dimensions of self. The thoughts we wish to live, versus the thoughts we wish to dream or envision. Gottfried’s work is rare in that it is able to cross-channel our deepest of thoughts into livable installation pieces of reflection.

Gottfried’s collections dare to be offensive and raise questions. Although, it is important to distinguish the act of daring to raise questions versus the act of trying to shock others. Helnwein stated, “No. Never. Everything that exists in here, indicating his head I want to show. I always paint what I feel I have to. I found out whatever I do, there will always be people upset.” If everyone likes an artist’s work there is a problem on one side or the other. When an artist tries too hard to be affable or to please, he loses himself. I believe one needs to be slightly offensive to be challenging. Offense should not always have to have the connotation of being problematic. If anything, it is quite the contrary. The very act of the artist making one defend their beliefs is worth doing. More people need to be challenged to think. The problem with this society is the very fact we have to be challenged to do so. It is one thing to offend it is another to shame. I am not going to compromise my identity for film making. If anything, it is my identity.