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Enigma Variations: The Work of Helen Lundeberg

Blue river, open door
Landscape white and orange
Daybreak by the sea
A narrow view sloping horizon
Marina, the poet’s road
Sundial cimmerrian landscape
A quiet place, moon, sea and mist
Desert road tree in the marsh
Biological fantasy
Ocean view, water map
Ambiguity estuary
Helen Lundeberg
Illusory landscape…

—Sonic Youth, “Helen Lundeberg” (2006)

Let’s begin at the end. Pass through the hard edges of her country and the science fiction of her colors, and as the decades fall away we’ll finally return to a room in California and the painter herself, summoning the cosmos. Helen Lundeberg finished her last painting nine years before her death in 1999, a few months shy of ninety-one. Almost seven decades earlier, in 1934, aged twenty-six or so, Lundeberg wrote with her teacher and lover (later husband) Lorser Feitelson a manifesto for New Classicism, a punchy critique of Surrealism. In place of the randomness of dreams and the misfirings of the subconscious, they call for an associative reality composed with structure. Tangly with grand abstractions, the manifesto struts with a certain necessary bravado (as any manifesto ought to), claiming in its conclusion “an aesthetic order… unprecedented in the history of art.” In practice, New Classicism started a little clunkily, with assorted objects and figures diagramming ideas a little too obviously, but this resolved itself quickly with a potent illusionism and eerie subtlety. Her work went from slavishly rendered portraits and plants, the latter almost botanical in their detail, to planar landscapes, both drawn from a palette that feels quiet, ancient, and soft. Hidden within her manifesto on post-surrealism is the beauty of her life’s work: a world that’s real but doesn’t feel so, a waking life that feels like a dream, not surreal but lucidly real. 

Lundeberg’s post-surrealism isn’t an introspective look into her own subconscious but one that looks out into the world, shaped by the subjective but ordered on the meandering logic of perception, attracted more to order of science than the wet splat of expressionism that ultimately resolves itself into a sublime poetry. Though she denounces in her manifesto “introspective-expressionists (Surrealists),” including Salvador Dalí, Joan Miro, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico, among others, for having an aesthetic structure of “no historical significance, since it is still imitative and manneristic,” looking at Lundeberg’s paintings I can’t help but feel she arrived at the same dreamy place many of these painters sought, but via a different route, the same emotional space that de Chirico notes as a question on a painting of the same name from 1911: “And what shall I love if not the enigma?” She arrived there not from an irrational disordering of the senses, but through an orderly structure—arriving (even as all scientists will tell you) at the edge of reason, at those enigmas that lie beyond.

When we look at an artist’s whole body of work, we do not have to follow the linearity of forward progression. We can trace stories backward, pulling from threads dropped and picked up again. Lundeberg’s looked ever outward, beginning with a self-portrait and ending in dramatic landscapes. I want to follow her timeline from the end and find her again back at the beginning.

We begin beside two mountains, one reflecting the other in placid water. The dusky pinks of the sky, the soft purple of the peak, the unearthly stripes of grassy turquoise and blue granite grow deeper and sadder in the water. Two worlds kissing in a coastline, and even though you feel the earth beneath your feet, the cool whisper of air as you breathe, you’re still not sure which of those two worlds is real, as if to pierce the water would be to pass on the other side of the looking glass. And even so, you long to know if you’re the real you or only its dream, a ghost in the mirror. The difference between what is real and what is perceived dissolves. And perhaps it doesn’t matter; both feel luminous and spiritual, as if this world and that world, rather than just making for mere reflections, create some perfect balance. There is no one there but you. You are not in a dream, but feel like you are. The sky heaves with color, the clouds liquid and hard like the strata of ancient stone layered into epochs, some memory of its magma caught for eons in its undulations and curls, leaps and falls, glanced in an instant, the weight of millennia bending and warping, heating and churning, transforming shape and color but still, as ever, light as air. The land and sky pass with each deliberate step, and you feel like you’re deepening into some enigma of time and place, some golden moment where the hard struggles of existence resolve themselves into some moment of peace, that still point in a turning world. You pass valleys and wetlands, curving cliffs form the stern bend of coasts along ice-cold oceans and distant islands shrouded in mists. Time feels strange, stretched long and drawn deeper into abysses. Yet the weight of it feels lighter the further you go. The spectral colors of twilight burn out, and coming chill of dusk touches everything you see as night flies in. Some deeper meaning seems always hidden on the edge of the horizon, just out of reach. And there is only you to see it.  You know that this is the landscape, nature, but it also feels like something else. You half-remember classes on geology, books about seas and stars, your finger crossing through pillows and wisps of a cloud atlas. And somewhere in the jumble of the metamorphic and the astral, the oceanic and the noctilucent, you feel some semblance of its harmony—not an order but a current that leads from the incandescent plasma of a star to the molten core of a planet to the tidal shifts of oceans and the cooled vapor surging through an atmosphere. You lose all sense of where and when you are—what country, what continent, what planet, what millennia—and simply feel the sweep of its force. It gives you pause, but you do not stop as you cross over the hill and see a white city stretch before you. 

The last red-hot streaks of dusk still hug the horizon, but they tendril into bruised blues and wet purples inking into a dome of night, stars twinkling and the cool light of the moon bathing your skin. The eternal curve of nature squares off into a city such that even its ancient cuts and metaphysical quietude feel transitory to the land that holds it. You enter the city and its strange grids and turns, lonely streets leading to desolate arches, angular but far from Euclidian, built on some classical geometry too complex for you to figure as you pass from street to street, corner to corner. Here and there, you peek into rooms swept clean before some abandonment, long ago. At some points of view, the city feels carved of bone, at others like it’s all an illusion of dust and shadow. You tiptoe as the echo of the silence feels irreverent, a city where only the soft paws of a panther could own its silence. With each turn you feel younger somehow, more alert and more naive. And there in another empty courtyard, you see the warm glow of light beaming from an open door. As you enter, you see a mirror reflecting a lightbulb, but not its light. In another room, pears curl on a plate, a white coffee cup atop a crumpled napkin. The whorls of a perfect seashell resting against the grain of a stone whisper oceans. Each doorway feels like a portal to another world. And down a long hallway, you pass through another door.

A woman, her blonde hair tied neatly back at her neck, sits at the window with a brush in her hands. She’s summoning planets from the sky, drinking in their light and inventing new ones, painting their cosmic colors before setting them free again. She turns to look at you, a world in her hand, the celestial at the tips of her fingers, caught mid-brushstroke as the night sky opens ahead of her, open to the near-infinite possibilities that a universe can offer.

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