“My Body is My Work.”
Upon entering the Art Institute of Chicago, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the fantastic works that line the walls. Works by such names as Warhol, Picasso, Van Gogh, Koons, and many more, summon huge crowds for high-art. But one particular gallery remains nearly empty, watched over by a solitary security guard watching like a lonely scarecrow by a field of corn.
But while the show in question—a collection of works by photographer and painter Helena Almeida—may not receive the same attention as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) or Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), Almeida’s work is still well worth the visit—if only the viewer takes the time to understand it.
The exhibition in question is a showing of art by Helena Almeida entitled Work is Never Finished. The work in question by Almeida, a Portuguese painter and photographer bears more similarity to painting than photography when one takes into consideration her artistic process. This should not be a surprise considering she started out as an abstract painter.
The show is comprised of self-portraits: some with comical poses, some distorted though mirrors and other visual effects, and some seem to demonstrate a form of dance—all are black and white photographs with the occasional touch of blue. Her process to creating the final image, in many ways, is the most interesting part of the image.
According to the corresponding museum literature, Almeida explained that her process begins with what she called an “underpainting”: a conceptual overview for the completed work, usually a quick pencil sketch. She then filmed the act that she sketched, often using mirrors, chairs and other props to assist in the performance, which she then transformed into a still frame.
According to the aforementioned gallery materials, Almeida has said that the photograph represents “The End of the Work,” but knowing the artist’s process is only a single step in comprehending her work. Perhaps even more important is understanding how she arrived at her style of photography in the first place.
In doing so, she discovered a medium that combined her favorite forms of art: painting, photography, and performance. What began as a simple experiment would end up shaping her entire career. Up until this critical turning point, Almeida had specialized in abstract painting, and while much of her work was exhibited in galleries throughout Portugal and France, it was not until she began experimenting with the camera that her career really shot off internationally.
Much of Almeida’s work that was included in Work is Never Finished illustrates her propensity for creating the illusion of depth within a 2-D photograph—often done though the use of mirrors and paints.
She utilizes these simple visual tools to create faux-barriers and added depth to her photos. Often they create paradoxes within the piece, making the viewer question what they are looking at, and guiding their eyes though the composition.
Helena Almeida: Work is never finished is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from June 29th-September 4th 2017.