The Elemental Paintings of Helene Steene
By: Jason Lahman for CODAworx
Tracings: Celestial & Terrestrial Paths
A survey of the works of Helene Steene reveals the artist’s deep understanding of the connections between the various dimensions of nature. Her large abstract multi-media paintings take their inspiration from the geometries of the heavens and our world’s elemental physicality. The subjects may be the progression of planetary bodies through the sky, the eclipse of the moon, the luminous flash of the sun setting over a watery horizon, or the ornate silhouettes of vegetation (especially delicate leaves), as well as the textures of stones, soils and the strata of the earth. “Whether my work is non-objective, abstract or figurative, there is always a search for something that signifies a subtle inner beauty, depth and simplicity even when the forms are complex.” says Steene. “I am intrigued by the tension between forms, lines and colors that ultimately resolve in harmony.”
“Blue Eclipse”, 108” x 48”, oil glazes, acrylic, marble dust, metal and wood. [Photo: Helene Steene]
This attention to natural forms is seen in her magical “Eclipse” series, in which lunar and solar paths partake in a sort of cosmic ballet; the forms are transformed into a different arrangement, one that is more structural. They reference the history of the human-made and the architectural to lovely effect. “Urban Eclipse,” transports the viewer from celestial allusions to terrestrial. Are these nuanced silver-gray rectangles doorways or columns, chimneys or monoliths? And these mechanistic arrangements between them -- are these pendulums or shields, sundial faces or perhaps jewelry? All of these possibilities play across the imagination as attention is focused on the interlocking of the shapes and textures which contrast delicate softness with robust impasto.
“Urban Eclipse”, 120” x 54” oil glazes, mineral pigments and marble dust, charcoal and burnished metal on wood. [Photo: Aaron Anderson]
Diving: Inspirations from Antiquity
Born in Sweden and exposed early to the pleasures of an idyllic countryside, Steene immigrated to the United States where she studied fine art and eventually came to live in the beautiful Bluegrass of Kentucky. But it is on the Greek isle of Paros, her second home where she and her family spend a portion of the year, from which so much of the inspiration for Steene’s work is derived. Her paintings always incorporate white marble dust, the pigment that locals have been using to paint their homes for centuries. "My first experience with this substance, was when touching the walls of these simple, but sublimely beautiful buildings. The pale, shimmering, dry film it left on my palms fascinated me, and inspired me to experiment with it in my paintings," says Steene. “The great architects and sculptors in ancient times, as well as present-day sculptors, prize this marble for its beautiful and translucent quality.”
“Antiquity Dive I” and “Antiquity Dive II” (both 84” x 48”) allude to the archeological strata as well as the cultural layers of the Mediterranean landscape. [Photo 1: Don Ament / Photo 2: Helene Steene]
The history of the ancient artisans of her adopted home is at the heart of much of Steene’s work. In her “Antiquity Dive” series, the paintings are composed like the levels of a cut-away in an archeological dig. The three-fold layers of sky, sea, and deep earth are heightened by her use of rich textures and bold colors: the gold and rosy luminosity of dawn and dusk, the cool blue and green of ocean depths and the soft, mineral surfaces of what is hidden deep within the earth as well as the sea. As in her “Urban Eclipse,” Steene uses a monolithic shape placed low (like something precious and hidden) but perhaps referencing an opening.
“Akrotiri Fresco V” (22" x 26") and “Red Sky Veil Fresco” (42” x 48” x 2"), allude to classical forms, myths, and materials. [Photo 1: Helene Steene. Photo 2: Don Ament]
The very best abstraction touches the viewer’s imagination on multiple levels. The power is not necessarily in its capacity to be a Rorschach test, drawing out an unending stream of allusive meanings. It may act as a catalyst for a chain of interesting associations; the sheer beauty of the colors, forms, and textures should also arrest the gaze, and give pleasure by capturing the viewer’s attention. Steene remarks on this: "If my work can slow someone down to contemplate something within her or himself - if the work can add a moment of focus on inner peace in this absurd world - then I have succeeded in reaching the viewer. We, the viewer and the mark maker are connected through that ephemeral magic that is all around, as I am convinced that one's range of intellect is trivial when compared with the depths of the mysteries."
“Paros Blues”, 42” x 48” a work referencing the blues of sky and sea and the white marble for which the island of Paros is famous. [Photo: Don Ament]
A person versed in classical lore or art history will certainly pick up important details that connect Steene’s work to the past and to the places that inspire her, however, the greater mysteries of which she speaks are the human emotions of awe, wonder and appreciation which are at their root responses to what is beautiful in nature, both inner and outer. “The beauty and the mystery of the horizon have definitely influenced my work. Before living on Paros, my work did not exhibit these strong horizontals. The sea and sky have played such an important role.”
Steene’s work with its balancing of art historical and purely formal concerns appeals to a wide audience and is found in both private and public collections, in grand homes and corporate meeting rooms, in universities as well as centers of healing such as the Mayo Clinic. In 2021 the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art is planning a retrospective highlighting many works from across the artist’s career. Prof. Jane Peters of the University of Kentucky has written "Steene's luminous layers of colors and intuitively balanced structure are reminiscent of Rothko's luminous paintings. Her visual subtleties slow down the viewing process and contribute to an overall sense of harmony and inner peace, one that serves as an antidote to today's fast-paced, chaotic world".
"Blue Dance”, 72” x 96”. Using her signature pigments and layers of glaze, the artist creates a dazzling effect that never-the-less sacrifices nothing of the subtle. [Photo: Helene Steene]
In considering what some of these elements are that so instill a sense of peace, an invitation to a more tranquil experience, one is drawn to the luminous and pearlescent sheens that often play across the surfaces. “When I began to work with the ginkgo leaf I had to really consider how I wanted to do that. It is such a well-known design element. I wanted to create something different.” What makes these elements truly elemental is Steene’s technique “I use many oil glazes with pure mineral pigments over the marble dust mixtures. Surfaces are sanded and built up in numerous, very translucent, layers to create intense colors with great depth.”
“Gingko”, 102” x 108”. The artist with another of her giant works incorporating pearlescent Leaves that resemble dancers hovering in space. [Photo: Erica Lee]
Steene’s leaves hover and float, suspended in a gentle flux. As one approaches these massive wall pieces one is aware of the delicate, shell-like quality of the leaves, a mother-of-pearl flashing that draws in the eye. Regarding the optical impact of these pieces Prof. Peter Abbs of the University of Sussex, Great Britain writes: "Call Steene's paintings the fusion of geometry and grace, which probes and pierces, or let us say we gaze out from the eye of light itself". This connection between elegant design and the viewer’s peaceful experience is what Steene hopes to achieve as she works to perfect the enchanting dance between pure form and classical allusion, delicious texture, and the familiar geometries of nature.