Acclaimed multimedia artist Helène Aylon’s recent residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts marked a homecoming of sorts; Helène was last there 22 years ago working on a series of paintings. “When I got home after the residency in 1993,” Helène says. “I never looked at them again. They were in cartons hidden away, and now I’ve come back with them. I am seeing how I was in those days, these panels, these garlands, are remembered from a long time ago, but they’re also elegiac: things gone by. I’m making an arc of my life at the end of my life. I’ve come full circle with the process art, and it’s happening at VCCA.”
These paintings feature fragile leaves, pods and blades of grass strewn across a field of what looks like eddying vapor or liquid. Helène used brewed coffee as her medium; its faint aroma still hovers over the canvases.
Born into an ultra orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York, Helène married a Talmudic scholar/rabbi at the age of 18. Widowed at 30 with two young children and armed with an arts degree from Brooklyn College, Helène underwent a remarkable transformation that would find her living in Berkeley in the 1970s, teaching at San Francisco State and forging a prominent art career.
Helène, who is 84, is one of the foremost artists of the eco-feminist art movement, which links feminism and nature. She is to receive a Lifetime Achievement and President’s Art & Activism Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. on February 4, 2016 (her 85th birthday). Two days later, she will be screening her Bridge of Knots video (with sound by Meredith Monk) and will also be participating in a panel at American University in Washington during the College Art Association conference.
Her series Paintings That Change, produced between 1974 and 1977, featured linseed oil “formations” on paper. The natural quality of the oil and the organic shapes it formed appealed to Helène as did the chance and change involved. It was the perfect match for an artist whose own life had been marked by seismic shifts.
In 1978, Helène began work on a series called The Breakings, pouring linseed oil in a puddle on a surface, allowing a skin to form on top of the oil and then tilting the works up from the floor. The wet oil would press against the outer skin, causing it to break. “I would wait months for a skin to form—very much like a gestation. The formations looked like tree trunks and torsos—it was all mixed together: a women’s body and the body of the land. Eventually, I would announce that I was going to make a Breaking and invite people to witness it. It was like a birthing: the sac that held the oil would inevitably break and the oil would gush out like an amniotic sac bursting. It was orgasmic too. It was about a release. It is indicative of the visceral, birthing body, as opposed to the Playboy body that dominates our culture. ”“I would say to the “midwives": ‘whatever is contained must be released. You are going to initiate a Breaking, and I am going to receive it.’ So, I was going to accept it no matter what. Whatever happens. I was not in charge in a sense. It was a different kind of an attitude; I never wanted to make my mark particularly in the art. I wanted it to tell me something, rather than me telling it something. I wanted to learn something deeper from the art. Because I felt abstract art after Rothko did his great work, I felt it was arbitrary. It didn’t matter if you put yellow in the corner, or purple in the corner. So I wanted something natural to happen to inform it.” The Breakings were shown and performed at 112 Workshop (now White Columns), and documented for the Whitney’s American Century exhibition in 2000.
In 1980, Helène heard Australian physician, author, and anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott speak: “She said wherever you are in your life, try to imagine doing something for disarmament. Suddenly, I just felt: Goodbye studio, I’m going to do something.”
Helène closed her studio and converted a used U-Haul truck into an Earth Ambulance. She drove the ambulance to 12 Military S.A.C. (Strategic Air Command) sites across the country and eventually the United Nations in New York during the Second Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament on June 12, 1982, to “rescue” the earth. She collected pillowcases from women who had written their dreams and nightmares about nuclear war on them, filling them with earth. She selected pillowcases because they’re sacks and so reference the S.A.C. sites. Pillowcases are also very intimate items that we use at our most vulnerable, and Helène wanted to play upon the image of fleeing refugees, their possessions carried in a pillowcase. Later on Helène took the pillowcases and knotting them together into long ropes of linen, she hung them across various museum façades. The Bridge of Knots, as the piece was called, was installed at the Knoxville Museum of Art (1993) Berkeley Art Museum (1995) and American University Museum (2006). Earth Ambulance was shown at Creative Time at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage in 1992.
In 1985, to mark the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Helène went to Japan. She made two large “sacs”, representing the two cities. She asked students to put some kind of substance from the earth inside them, and they filled them with seeds, grain, pods and bamboo. The sacs were launched onto rivers where they floated towards Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Helène’s video two sacs en route (i.e. to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was projected on the Sony Jumbotron in Times Square Helène was particularly pleased that the screen looked directly down on the U.S. Armed Forces recruitment kiosk.
In the 1990s, Helène turned her attention to God with The G-d Project, which spanned two decades and is comprised of nine parts. “I decided I was going to liberate God from the patriarchal misogyny and brutality imposed by man projected onto G-d. With The Liberation of G-d, I planned to go through every single page of the Old Testament, cover it respectfully with transparent parchment and then highlight in pink marker all the parts that revealed this. It was a very big thing; it took six years. Called The Book that Will not Close on account of all the inserted protective parchment, it was shown at The Jewish Museum in New York where it received both hate mail and love letters.” Helène wrote G-d using a dash, in a nod to her orthodox background where she was taught never to use the name of God in vain. Helène’s dashes are always written in a subversive, pro-female hot pink inserting a female presence in the name of God.
Helène’s photographic series, Wrestlers documents her going out into the landscape to search for the echoes of foremothers that have disappeared: “I never heard about them. When I imagine Eden, I imagine a female space where foremothers are named and regarded with the awe of the sacred land they resembled. I knew these foremothers had wrestled to be heard.” In the photographs, mirror image figures of Helène are dwarfed by the imposing and sensual landscape that evokes the female form. “This sounds very grandiose, but after looking for the foremothers, I decided, hey, you know what, I’m going to be a future foremother." I thought of this when I was very sick—in a coma for 20 days—when I woke I was so very grateful that I had survived I decided to go to the land in gratitude and perhaps to get some answers—so once a year I do what I call a Turning. I turn to the right, I turn to the left, I don’t come to any conclusion. I don’t have any answers.”
Subsequent work became much more personal. Two years ago in Israel, Helène showed pieces that used her own history to highlight the many restrictions placed on women by the Jewish orthodox faith. Included in the show was Helène’s marriage contract and a 24’ long menstrual cycle chart to be used to determine “clean days”. “It’s unreal,” she says. “But I lived it.”
Helène exhibited her early process paintings: Paintings that Change at the legendary Betty Parsons gallery in the 1970s. Helène shared a close bond with the dealer and on October 25,, Helène will be on the panel: Betty Parsons and her Artists at the Samuel Dorskey Museum at SUNY New Paltz.
Helène’s piece, Written Behind my Back, will be included in the 2015 Jerusalem Biennale opening onSeptember 25. She is hoping All Rise will be in the 2017 Biennale. As Helène describes it, The G-d Project consists of nine “houses” without women. The last house is the courthouse, the subject of All Rise. The ultra orthodox do not permit women to be judges in the religious court in Israel. “I wanted to really do something tangible. We have women cantors and we have women rabbis, but we do not have women judges in the religious courts in Israel. Women who want to get divorced are kept under the thumb of their husbands who are often in cahoots with the judges. The women are agunot—in Hebrew that means the ”chained ones.”
The All Rise piece consists of three judge’s chairs, courtroom flags that are pink pillowcases. Under the chairs are the fringes from the prayer shawls worn by men. “That’s a little bit naughty,” she says with a chuckle. “But I had to do it.”
Helène’s memoir takes its title from The Breakings series: Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist. Published by The Feminist Press in 2012, the memoir recounts her breaking away from her past and the nostalgia she still has for it.
Balancing aesthetics with ethics, Helène embraces both the sensuousness of the natural world and the cerebral world of ideas in her work. Her rigorous religious upbringing armed her with the language and knowledge to take on something as formidable as the Five Books of Moses, and her evolution from complacent rabbi’s wife into a woman attuned to her primal place in the grand scheme of things, adds an aura of profound legitimacy to her perspective.
“The ‘70s was about the body, the ‘80s the earth and the ‘90s, God,” says Helène even as she allows as how she continues to work on everything all at once: “I couldn’t just do one thing. It was annoying to people in the art world because they wanted a signature piece. My work focuses on the issues of the day. And the thing is, the issues never go away. I can’t just leave them alone; I have to keep dealing with them.”
Helène?s work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum. Helène Has received grants from the NEA, the Pollack–Krasner Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is the subject of a new documentary film by Kelly Spivey funded by the New York Council for the Arts and the NEA. http://www.heleneaylon.com/