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Gambit Weekly Two Women: Helga and Divine

Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures at NOMA and John Waters: Director's Cut at Arthur Roger, through June

By D. Eric Bookhardt

By the time it was over, some people thought they had seen it all. The 1970s, that is, and its attendant decadence. It was a time of war, violence and Watergate, so it was initially easy to overlook the more colorful or subtle signs of decay (especially in the Big Easy, where it was always more colorful than subtle). But by 1980, everyone knew. The 1970s had been cynical, sensual and self-indulgent -- a regular Dorian Gray sort of a decade.

Think of glitter rock, David Bowie, Roxy Music, the S&M fashion plates of Helmut Newton as well as dubious movies like Andy Warhol's Bad and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet few of those can compare with John Water's Pink Flamingos, a film that, at least in some people's minds, was emblematic of the times.

Of course, painting and sculpture were already ahead of the curve, having done decadence with a vengeance in the 1960s, with spectacles like Yves Klein's body art (nude models rolling in paint on canvas on the floor) and ending up with Warhol's car crash graphics. By the 1970s, it was all old news, and artists were finally free to be themselves (a major problem for most). Then Andrew Wyeth's clandestine Helga series finally came to light, and people were shocked. In fact, Wyeth's Helga and John Waters' Divine were both signs of the times in their own unique ways.

Helga was a perfect art-world fable from the start, an unusually humanistic if secret project by one of painting's most upright figures. Here was old Andrew after all, stalking the pristine glades of his native Quaker state -- presumably to find the perfect empty pasture to immortalize -- and then it turns out he was hooking up with this Helga babe in his doty old aunt's attic all the while. Whatever they were actually doing up there, the clandestine side of the story got wildly sensationalized when it became public in the 1980s. As it turns out, the Helga stuff was not such a big secret after all. It was just something old Andrew didn't want to be known for -- and for reasons that become pretty obvious after even a cursory glance at this NOMA show.

It should first be noted that Wyeth was usually a superb craftsman in watercolor and tempera, and the pastoral subjects of his best-known works reflect his sentimental, perfectionist view of rural Americana. And if he sometimes threw in the occasional figure, these were typically pretty detached and not all that different in tone from his trees, barns or what have you.

The Helga series is different on both counts. First, most of these images -- and especially the nudes -- are studies that don't really work as finished pieces. Wyeth wasn't ordinarily a "skin" painter, and the stolid Nordic voluptuary sprawled across his studio bed obviously induced nervous paroxysms and furtive flashbacks to his student days. This is evident in the drawings, where he seems to struggle (often unsuccessfully) to figure out what to do with that occasional stray leg, foot or knobby knee.

Divine is an icon of an ironic time.
On the other hand, there is something almost touching about his lack of confidence in coming to terms with Helga. So instead of his usual pristinely controlled (I say boring) landscapes, the Helga series reveals the insecurities experienced by an aging maestro confronting an unfamiliar, yet vital intimacy. There are some masterworks here, of course, most of them familiar enough by now, but the value of this show lies largely in its insight into the mysteries of artistic creation, mysteries that for Wyeth were epitomized in the resonant silences of Helga herself.

In Divine, however, we see a woman of another kind. And even if the star of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble is only a minor presence in John Waters' film clip collages at Arthur Roger, her (his) spirit hangs over the place like a guardian (or avenging) angel. While Helga and the Pennsylvania landscape were Wyeth's symbols for pastoral nature, Divine, just across the Maryland state line, was the self-avowed "filthiest person in the world," as she proved in her clash with rivals Raymond and Connie Marble, the dope and baby-selling porn lords she snuffs out in Flamingos.

Helga was decadent only in relation to Wyeth's sentimental take on Americana, which she somehow unsettled, while Divine took another American tradition -- its tendency to wretched excess -- to previously unthinkable extremes. While Waters makes no effort to top himself in this show, works like Edith Tells Off Katherine Hepburn and, especially, 12 A--holes and a Dirty Foot fulfill Divine's own unique legacy -- her flair for subverting and redefining the way American media images are packaged and consumed. So both Helga and Divine undermined something of this country's euphemistic self-image, its tendency to see itself through rose-colored glasses. Both linger on as icons of an ironic and paradoxical time.

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