in the sculptures of Ralph Helmick
By Kathryn Nock, contributor
Kathryn Nock: What inspired you to embrace the intersection between art and science in your work? Is there a moment in your development as an artist that you can remember their relationship "clicking" for you?
Ralph Helmick: In retrospect, science clicked for me in three successive stages:
As a young sculptor learning to make objects it was clear that “science” - in a practical sense - was crucial, especially when making objects. Fusing engineering with aesthetics was a basic challenge. This is utilitarian science. If you keep at it, and get a lot of help, one can make some very complex things.
(II) Aesthetic competition
Later, in art school, I became aware that scientific imagery often provided more compelling visual imagery than fine art at the time. This was in the ‘70’s. Microscopy was getting better. CAT scans were entering the scene. LANDSAT photos from space were more intoxicating than color field painting. Fine art would need to work hard to compete with the science stuff.
Even as a kid, visiting planetariums and science museums, it was clear that there were
more poetic aspects of science that would provide inspiration.
I’ll never forget seeing a Foucault’s Pendulum while in grade school. It was transporting both visually and conceptually. It was a lesson in temporal observation, and perspective, and scale.
And Muybridge’s sequential photos offered direct inspiration which I later employed directly in some of my public commissions, such as Impulse at Philadelphia Airport.
KN: How do you see increasing the overlap between art and science as a tool to better understand challenging aspects of our world?
RH: Any good creative endeavor will hint at a trans-rational realm.
The best art and science are such endeavors, and they can trigger both curiosity and a weird sense of contentment. Also, if we’re lucky, discovery. They engage even the non-specialist. The act of generating a fine art object and the act of designing an elegant scientific experiment have parallels. Intuition plays a role in both. And each can be described as “beautiful.” (Let’s not get into the hopelessly obtuse and foolish “distrust of beauty” arguments.)
With n+1, a commission at Tampa Airport, I elected to address local sea turtle ecology through sculpting a large streamlined leatherback, echoed by a large point cloud of hatchlings in the same form. My goal was to invite contemplation of an endangered species through... beauty.
KN: What is your approach to the interplay between concept and location for your installations? Which generally comes first in your creative process?
RH: Over time I’ve developed longstanding strands of inquiry. So there’s a cache of conceptual/thematic investigations I might overlay on a physical setting. Nothing’s really a blank slate.
As a result, in my public art site-specificity is the first step. What does a location offer with respect to challenges and opportunities. Any site has physical and optical boundaries and frames artistic potential. Proximity. Intimacy. Viewing angles. They’re all givens, often exciting ones.
To cite Impulse again, the site was inspiring: a 2-story horizontal space where the primary viewing experience would be a moving walkway from which one could look through an adjacent window wall. We suspended thousands of handcrafted small pewter bird sculptures to create a sort of 3D flipbook. Over a 200-foot expanse a random flock morphs into a macrocosmic goose in flight, which in turn morphs into a classic DC-3 aircraft.
KN: Some of your sculptures include subjects that can include a degree of social disagreement (e.g. environmental health, justice system). When you create art that touches on these topics, do you consider yourself an activist, or use your sculptures to send a certain message to those who encounter it?
RH: We’re talking about art and politics, and drawing a Venn diagram of the two realms is misguided. They overlap completely, but the overlap can be obvious or subtle.
Is Judy Chicago political? Sure. Is Mark Rothko? Well, yeah, he is, too.
For me “social justice” art with a clear message nearly always seems flatfooted and ineffective. It preaches to the choir, often fulfilling an agenda at the cost of artistic excellence. There are rare exceptions, such as Jon Rubin’s wonderfully political Conflict Kitchen, and Nina Katchadourian’s wholly absorbing and elliptically feminist Lavatory Self-Portraits. Those pieces succeed through strategies akin to peripheral vision, and they’re powerful because at first we don’t quite know what we’re looking at. They don’t harangue. They don’t shock. They amaze.
And all of us with a political bent can learn from them.
KN: What's a topic you are inspired by or are excited to explore in the future?
RH: I’d like to continue exploring how one can disrupt “commonplace” optical perception with the goal of generating a more conscious viewing experience. In a sense this is on a continuum with what artists have always done. Think what Monet and the Impressionists (and many others before and since) realized with optical consolidation. How this dynamic in 2D painting can be channeled into the sculptural realm is a central interest of mine.
Neuroscience in particular has a lot to offer here, e.g. how do we “map” the world experientially? How do our bodies help shape our art experiences?
Schwerpunkt, a commission of mine at the McGovern Center for Brain Research, addresses this directly by employing anamorphosis. A random assortment of neuron sculptures coheres into a coherent image when seen from a single perspective.
Speaking of the future, I’m intrigued by how the past speaks to us contemporary artists. In particular what do artists today share with the cave artists at Lascaux and Chauvet? I’m confident we’re part of a continuum.