Enter a Helen Rae Show a Blank Slate, The Good Luck Gallery
By Tom Pazderka
At first glance, the drawings appear crude. They’re made up of scrawl and scratchy lines, a limited color palette and angular forms as if someone clutching a pencil too hard is attempting to draw. However, on further inspection, the drawings reveal refinement, a methodical approach learned over years and years of relentless practice. Helen Rae appears to be the Henry Darger of the LA art scene. Working slavishly on her singular vision, deaf and mentally disabled, Rae began drawing late in her life, about 30 years ago, when she was in her 50s, with a life-time of observation of her environment and the world. Rae chose to draw from magazine ads, making her own renditions of a wholly fictional world, putting herself symbolically into yet another version of a fiction, a copy of a copy of a copy.
The simplicity of the subject matter shouldn’t deceive us. After all, pop culture, fashion, advertising and publicity are the subjects of today’s ‘high’ art the world over. But Rae renders this space with reverence rather than derision. There is no discernible or calculating dismantling of the fiction, so to speak. Rae isn’t interested in revealing the truth behind advertising. She doesn’t snobbishly thumb a finger at those who are supposed to have been bamboozled by it.
Perhaps the appeal of these images—even though they do come from a place that is rife with meta-narratives—is they reveal a fondness for fantasy and image-making and a real skill in their rendering. The source material is never abandoned or scorned, it is used, filtered and in some sense absolved of its supposed nefarious position. The touch of the artist’s hand is ever present and her vision from one image to the next is absolute.
Despite Rae’s recent successes, from the selling out of her first solo show at The Good Luck Gallery to the international attention that her work received, she continues to work in the same place she’s worked for years, the First Street Gallery in Upland, California. I tend to have my doubts about so called art world ‘discoveries,’ usually made up of various ‘outsider’ artists, that end up serving as cash cows for the few individuals that control their work.
It is easy to become jaded when faced with the modern issues of supply and demand that permeate the art market. Money is a substitute for value and determines importance ascribed to certain works of art and certain artists. Sometimes it’s easy to see beyond this mechanism, occasionally it is not. In Helen Rae’s case, I can safely write that the attention her work is getting is warranted. Even when compared side by side, the drawing and the source material, there’s nothing that would suggest that Rae isn’t completely sincere in her intentions.
Whatever her reasons are for making these images, those are probably best left alone. The end result is worthy and fantastic enough to stand on its own without the need to enter into a debate as to its validity. And this would be my suggestion, to enter into a Helen Rae exhibition as I did, a blank slate. My visit to the Good Luck Gallery was random and without a predetermined concept of what I’d find there. It only took a few minutes before something ‘clicked’ in my head and despite my lack of knowledge of who the artist was, I understood I was looking at something unique.
The lack of any political discourse in any of the images only added to my experience of the show. The drawings allowed me in without beating me over the head with some kind of agenda, and this I found especially refreshing.
The exhibition is now over, but Rae continues to work. Look out for a show the next time it comes around, it’ll be worth it.
Helen Rae was on exhibit from January 12 to February 24, 2019 at The Good Luck Gallery, 945 Chung King Road (Chinatown) Los Angeles.