LA most definitely had a massive part in me ending up in a career as a visual artist. It was the atmosphere and the amount of freedom here that allowed me to collaborate with friends and put on one-night shows and actually sell enough work to survive. Every weird idea always seemed possible here.
— Mercedes Helnwein

Interview by Amanda Quinn Olivar, West Coast Editor

Mercedes Helnwein was born in 1979 in Vienna, Austria, daughter to Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein. She moved to Ireland with her family in her teens, where she spent her time writing and drawing. Consciously choosing not to attend art schools, Helnwein developed a distinct visual style that remained fully untouched by outside opinions, peers or fads. Instead she drew her inspiration from personal influences, ranging from Southern Gothic traditions to the cartoons of Robert Crumb, nineteenth Century Russian literature and American motel culture amongst others. 

Her first art shows were self-instigated one-night events in Los Angeles, often with one or two other inexperienced young artists, most commonly photographer Alex Prager. Sponsored by various alcoholic beverage companies, magazines, and unlikely supporters such as Land Rover, these shows generated a surprisingly genuine response and enabled Helnwein to continue developing her work. She began exhibiting regularly in Los Angeles during this period at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, as well as in Europe, steadily garnering interest and collectors, amongst them Damien Hirst, who bought out a London show.

With her series Asleep in the Wind Helnwein broke from the primarily pencil-focused style of her early work, moving onto large-scale formats and experimenting with oil pastel as a medium. In 2015, she moved back to Ireland for two years to further develop this work without distractions, expanding into a wider range of media and delving deeper into the themes of American adolescence–Halloween, living rooms, school scenes. She first exhibited new work from this series with her exhibition Chaos Theory at the Edward Hopper House in 2017.

Film and photography has also long been an integral part of Helnwein's work, whether behind the scenes as reference material or in the forefront with films for her exhibitions, such as the Cops and Nurses film in 2013. Her brother, composer Ali Helnwein, often collaborates with her on these projects.

Mercedes Helnwein currently lives and works in downtown Los Angeles and Ireland.

What was the aha moment that led you to art... and did Los Angeles play a part in your career decision?

I don't know if there was such a moment, since I’m basically doing now what I did as a kid, and it feels like I never really “started” doing it. If there was an aha moment, it must have been pretty early on in my life, but it always just felt like such a normal part of existing. My dad is an artist, so I grew up with his studio, and other artists and collectors coming over, and art shows, etc. But I can’t say that it is because of my dad that I ended up being an artist, because I’d never much planned on doing it for a living, and all through my teens I was actually writing novels and wanting to be a writer. I was drawing obsessively, but I wanted to be a writer.

And I would say LA most definitely had a massive part in me ending up in a career as a visual artist. It was the atmosphere and the amount of freedom here that allowed me to collaborate with friends and put on one-night shows and actually sell enough work to survive. Every weird idea always seemed possible here. This city has a high tolerance for non-standard existences. I was just barely out of my teens at the time and decided not to go to college and I did little, dark ink drawings and somehow people bought them—off my kitchen table before I even had a show.

All of the very first people to buy my art were from LA. Their faith and encouragement via buying these little drawings back when I had no clue what I was really trying to do—that was invaluable, and I really feel that is a very LA kind of trait. That unbiased, unabashed and enthusiastic appreciation for something just because you like it, with no intellectual or scientific reasoning behind it. More of a gut reaction than one involving mental complications. This city is a very generous environment for any kind of creative output. It really is. It’s very lenient in that respect. People are always willing to be interested.

Mercedes Helnwein
Volleyball Team, 2018
Oil pastel on paper
124.5 x 149.9 cm
49 x 59 in
Photo: © Mercedes Helnwein
Courtesy of the Artist

How has living in LA informed your approach and aesthetic? 

I think LA is an incredibly inspiriting city. I hated it when I first moved here, but the more I got embedded in the city and started to interact with it, the more it became a very consoling, familiar place. It stopped being all the things I had always heard about it, and started being something I was a part of—something that was mine to a degree.

And while living here, my work has definitely made a massive transformation. This was the place I worked through all the necessary and sometimes super embarrassing stages of work to arrive where I am now, which is where I was probably meant to get to all along—this series, this style, this realm of subject matter. Over the years I’ve switched from pencil to oil pastel and oil paints, larger sizes, and a style that to me gradually became more emotionally potent. 

The American way of life has always been my main source of inspiration.  As a European I am able to be fascinated by this country in the way of an outsider. I didn’t grow up with Halloween or cheerleading or the American version of Christmas. The American suburban landscapes, the cities, the convenience stores, the clothes, the malls, the slang and the rituals. I had short spurts of experiencing it at the Bonn American High School in Germany, and every time we went to the US (which was often), but it’s not nearly the same as growing up here and being inextricably a part of it.

Both as a writer and most definitely as a visual artist, that fascination was always there.

When and how did you first feel embraced by our LA art community?

I guess just seeing the masses of people who would come to shows even early on and take the time to look at my work and tell me stuff about it. It never fully occurred to me that the work would collide with strangers in the end, until it actually did. And then, of course, that became the point of making art—it’s not fully a finished piece until someone has reacted to it.

The exhibition speaks about the vitality of our art community. Which pioneering LA artist influenced you the most? And whose work do you find intriguing right now?    

I love John Register, who was born in NY, but lived in LA and died here, and I associate him more with this side of the country. Also, does Charles Bukowski count? I have always been heavily influenced by writers and literature, so to me a lot of the most important people are writers.

What is your favorite art accident?

Well, the LA summers turn my oil pastels into a whole different consistency, which in turn changes the style of whatever piece I’m working on in my microwave of a studio, often with pretty cool results. Working in Ireland with the same brand of oil pastels is a totally different experience.

How They Ran
Over The Influence
August 12 - September 5, 2018