SOPHIE VON HELLERMANN at Greene Naftali reviewed in Elephant Magazine by Meka Boyle, 2023
Greene Naftali is pleased to announce Sophie von Hellermann: Genius, the artist’s seventh solo exhibition at the gallery, featuring a cycle of new paintings that pry open the concept’s complex tangle of reward and consequence, fetish and obsession. An utterly subjective term that still lands with the thud of authority, “genius” grants enormous cachet and can license bad behavior. In her fascination with that status, von Hellermann is deeply skeptical of its dated, often masculinist tropes: the prodigy, the auteur, the brilliant eccentric, the tortured artist pacing the studio. Yet she remains intrigued by its superlative promise—the spark that fuels creation. Drawing on literature, history, folklore, and personal rumination, von Hellermann paints archetypes (and anti-heroes) that iterate on genius and its varied implications.
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The works on view are arranged in graduated order of size, an implicit progression. They range from a diminutive scene of a lighted match, the first flash of inspiration, to the largest canvas depicting a Mahler-like female maestro, more orchestral in proportion. Von Hellermann ties this scalar increase to the Romantic ideal of genius attained through self- improvement; though it also suggests that the myth of genius has its own propulsive momentum—and, perhaps, that those favored few get to take up more space than the rest of us.
Linking genius to merit, von Hellerman paints both exceptional figures (Jane Austen, Cézanne through his Card Players) and feats of human strength (a vaulter who keeps pace with a galloping horse, chasing down an elusive prize). But alongside narratives of genius-as-mastery are those of possession—succumbing to forces beyond oneself, a conduit for their powers. Gods or muses writhe around a neon colonnade, signs of that divine intervention; elsewhere a long-limbed angel (or demon) can carry mere mortals to those lofty heights. Von Hellermann’s murderer’s row of excellence is also tempered by the other extreme— the curse that can accompany the genius moniker, in the mad desire to achieve. Young Werther is here with his Sturm und Drang, depicted just before his suicide, and Prometheus is eternally chained to his rock, punished for the excess of his striving.
Included among these narrative vignettes are large-scale paintings of playing cards, often containing double portraits that show two sides of the same persona. Our most cherished, stubborn notions of greatness hold that it is innate or somehow ordained, but von Hellermann’s cards imply that the role of chance may be just as potent. The hand we are dealt in life can determine if genius is realized, or if it is recognized as such.
Several works also feature maritime metaphors or aquatic imagery, themes that satisfyingly reflect the artist’s own distinctive style. A face peers up from a whirlpool, a fishing lure poised to capture what slips beneath the surface, rendered in eddies of thinned paint applied, wet-on-wet, to unprimed canvas. A surfer rides a towering wave in full command of nature’s energy, and von Hellermann has described paint in similar terms: as an unpredictable, liquid medium that must be harnessed. The wispy, almost comic exuberance of her touch can defang the clichés of genius, but her fluid depictions are ultimately celebratory—painted in praise of what she calls “the genius in all of us.”