Fashions in visual art can change, almost overnight sometimes, and reputations can disappear, often with startling thoroughness.
Occasionally, however, diligent curators or art historians rescue artists from the past whose work still seems fresh, strong and enduring decades after their heyday.
That’s what Seattle gallerist David F. Martin and Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) curator Margaret E. Bullock have been doing for 20th-century Pacific Northwest artists at the Tacoma Art Museum.
In 2011, they gave pride of place at TAM to photographer Virna Haffer (1899-1974), whose work was so varied and inventive it was hard to believe she wasn’t already a regional household name.
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Now they’ve done the same for Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-68), a painter born in Lynden, Whatcom County, who was active in Seattle and Spokane in the 1930s and 1940s. Helder is primarily a watercolorist — but watercolorist doesn’t remotely convey the flavor of her work.
There’s nothing gauzy or impressionist about her compositions. Instead, she startles you with richly hued, sharply focused images that have almost an egg-tempera feel to them. Her defiantly counterintuitive mastery of her medium couldn’t be more impressive.
“Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder,” at TAM through Oct. 20, presents both Helder the artist and Helder the personality. We’re talking about a woman who, as Martin notes in his catalog essay, could be seen strolling the streets of 1930s Seattle, dressed in her finest while taking her pet skunk, Sniffy, for a walk on a leash. (The TAM show includes a lithograph of Sniffy.)
Helder won a good deal of recognition in her day. She had solo shows at the Seattle Art Museum in 1939 and at Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (later Los Angeles County Museum of Art) in 1945. She was represented by New York art galleries and included in notable group exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Helder’s most striking achievement was a series of paintings she did between 1939 and 1941 of the Grand Coulee Dam while it was under construction. The contrast in these, between geometric structures (the dam in progress, the outbuildings arrayed around it) and the more organic flow of the dam’s natural surroundings (scalloped desert hills, plunging watercourses), continually draws the eye.
“Sand and Gravel Works,” for instance, is a whole symphony of interconnected inclines, angles, slopes and shadows. “Jackhammer Crew” makes the most of the interplay between standing human forms, their drills and coiling drill hoses and the craggy rock beneath them.
Helder cast a meticulous eye on the ad hoc settlements that sprang up around the dam, too. “Hilltop House,” with its ramshackle shack for sale, and “Sunday Morning in Grand Coulee,” with its tidier cottages lined along an eroded dirt lane, are particularly fine.
She took care to document Kettle Falls, the cataract and waterway that would soon be inundated by Lake Roosevelt — and if document suggests something dry, don’t be misled. There’s a thrilling dynamism to the way she mixes stone outcrop, flowing water and sky reflection in these paintings.
The biggest overview of the site comes with “Coulee Dam, Looking West,” while “Rocks and Concrete” gives a nicely vertiginous sense of the project’s monumental scale in close-up.
The one drawback is the salon-style way they’re displayed at TAM. The paintings aren’t huge, averaging 18 by 22 inches. But they could use more room to breathe.
Helder didn’t just paint construction sites. She had a keen eye for architectural quirks and curiosities, best demonstrated at TAM by “Hallett House, Medical Lake” (near Spokane). Painstakingly precise in its detail, the image is also subtly distorted, as if seeing the building through a fish-eye lens.
Another highlight of the show is a trio of portraits, all oils on panel or Masonite. “Edward Giles Tennant” (circa 1939) almost looks like something out of Weimar Germany. Tennant, with cigarette in hand, wine bottle at the ready, colorful tie, cream-colored suit, brilliantined hair and owlish eyes veiled by lenses, is the ultimate dandy. (He was a Bon Marché window-display designer.) If there are more like this, we need to see them.
“Austere Beauty” draws mostly from Helder’s years in Seattle and Spokane, and that’s not just due to local boosterism. Helder and her husband, architect Jack Paterson, moved to Los Angeles in 1943, and by the time of her death in 1968, the rise of Abstract Expressionism had wiped out the market for work like hers, certainly among fashionable art circles. She left her artworks to a Jewish community center that sold them off over the years, but kept no records of what went where.
“Since much of her estate is currently unlocated,” Bullock writes, “it is not possible to accurately assess her work from this period.”
The Grand Coulee paintings had a happier fate. Twenty-two of them are in the permanent collection of Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, while another is owned by SAM. A perfect blend of artistic and historical interest, they’re well worth a trip to TAM.
An added attraction: TAM’s exhibit “Sitting for History: Exploring Self-Identity Through Portraiture” (running through Jan. 12, 2014). Although it’s uneven, the show has some terrific work in it, ranging from Gilbert Stuart’s “David Hinckley” (circa 1814) to Chuck Close’s “Lucas” (1991).
Other highlights include Robert Henri’s 1907 surprisingly moody portrait of a Ziegfeld Follies dancer, “Jessica Penn in Brown,” and an Ivan Albright self-portrait, in which he makes himself as zanily scary as the attic portrait he made for the 1945 film “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org