Working almost exclusively on paper, using graphite, gouache, and ink, Adam Helms makes drawings which often address a certain sort of rebel, criminal, or outlaw iconography. Over the past several years he has compiled a sort of dossier documenting the movements of a fictitious paramilitary group, the New Frontier Army. (Some of the NFA drawings were shown as part of Ballroom Marfa’s “You Are Here” exhibition in 2005.) Members of the NFA wear fatigues, tote vintage pistols, and sport horned buffalo masks on their heads. In a number of drawings they seem to be sitting for formal portraits, an impression heightened by Helms’ finely detailed, meticulous technique. Other drawings depict the NFA coat-of-arms and the fortifications being built on NFA territory. For all Helms’ exacting draftsmanship, the precise nature of the NFA remains deliberately unclear. Rebel group? Militia? The distinction is blurred. A temporal blur seems to be operating as well: the NFA’s uniforms and weapons evoke different eras of American history, and the buffalo-head soldiers pose for their portraits with the stiff dignity of nineteenth-century daguerrotypes. The NFA drawings scramble visual codes. Cryptic and encrypted, they draw together disparate styles and different eras of American resistance.
In last year’s Untitled (48 portraits), Helms created another portrait gallery, this one featuring 48 images of masks, hoods, and balaclavas. Arranged serially, the portraits resemble ID photos with signs of identity effaced, or mug shots without the mug. They might be excerpts from an Interpol or Department of Homeland Security guidebook to the internationally recognized symbols for bandit, guerilla, thief, political prisoner, and terrorist. Working with black ink on Mylar, Helms allowed the ink to puddle and run, further blurring any distinct sense of identity in the portraits. If these are portraits, they’re portraits of symbols, and the pooled, runny ink pushes them toward abstraction, suggesting how porous is the distinction between the two.
At the Locker Plant Helms exhibited a number of works in progress, including three nine-by-six-foot drawings. Created with charcoal, the drawings depict western or Alaskan landscapes. Vast, serene, uninhabited, the landscapes recall the blockbuster sublime of Albert Bierstadt. At the same time, Helms’s approach and technique, as in the portraits, push the images toward abstraction. The drawings read as landscape — and as the idea of landscape. A visual lineage is evoked, the symbolism of American myth. These might be the landscapes the NFA inhabit — or fantasize about inhabiting.
Adam Helms lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. He has a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design and a M.F.A. from Yale. His work was shown as part of the “Greater New York” exhibition at PS1 in 2005, and he has participated in many group shows in galleries and museums across the U.S, including a three-person show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last fall. Earlier this year he had a solo exhibition at Sister in Los Angeles, and in September he will have his first solo exhibition in New York at Marianne Boesky. In the January 2007 Artforum Helms was featured in the “First Takes” dedicated to young artists showing special promise.
The Chinati Foundation's Artist in Residence program is generously supported by the Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation and the Chinati Contemporary Council. Chinati is grateful for the generous financial support of our members and the support and in-kind contributions of the people of Marfa.