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Emojis and Horror Tropes Collide in Distorted Paintings

Equal amounts precision and playful anarchy permeate painter Eric Helvie’s new exhibition, 'NOOL.'
Pipe Smoker (Cyclops), 2016, 52 x 36. Oil, enamel, acrylic and fleece on canvas. Images courtesy the artist and Massey Lyuben

In internet slang, the word “nool” is a portmanteau of “not” and “cool.” In painter Eric Helvie’s new exhibition, NOOL, the phrase stands front and center. While his paintings are warped multimedia combinations of internet culture, emojis, and ancient myth, equal amounts of precision and playful anarchy, Helvie tells The Creators Project that the show’s title has to do with the deep rooted anxiety and dissatisfaction present in all of the works.


“Playing with abstraction, applying paint, crudely cutting fleece, fucking up photorealistic paintings—these are all just visual manifestations of my own distaste and disgust,” says Helvie. “Feelings that lately I've found very difficult to shake.”

Eric Helvie Pipe Smoker (Leviathan), 2016, 34 x 24. Oil and enamel on canvas

Helvie put each painting in NOOL through a rigorous editorial process. Many were rethought, while others were pulled out of “dead object” status through desperate last ditch efforts. For several paintings Helvie would consider the piece finished, then keep working on it out of distaste or dissatisfaction.

With Pipe Smoker (Leviathan), Helvie spent a month and a half hand-painting a battleship in oil paint. After three months of “living with the photorealistic oil painting,” he dove back in, crudely rendering the pipe and cartoonish scales over the top of it.

NOOL, installation view

“I couldn't help myself, I had made something so generically perfect that it required a desperate intervention,” Helvie says. “I was willing to risk losing the painting completely if that was the price of eradicating my own dissatisfaction.”

Helvie took an almost identical approach with the surreal cartoonishness of Pipe Smoker (Cyclops), and it shows the upside to Helvie’s second-guessing. The giant photorealistic eye looks like something out of Un Chien Andalou, but Helvie defaces the perfection the way internet users deface high resolution stills.

Eric Helvie Peter, 2016, 72 x 48. Oil, enamel, acrylic, and fleece on fleece over canvas

In the more abstract works, Helvie adds the scales first either through painstaking handpainting or silkscreening processes. For him, the scales are something to work on and against—like an underlying DNA. They’re visually resilient, so Helvie can apply thick layers of oil paint or press fleece fragments cut from Snuggies into the wet surface, yet still they remain.


Though themes or characters pop out through words like Pipe Smoker, Leviathan, Cyclops, Peter Pan, and Tinkerbell, Helvie wants the paintings to have a say in the matter. This is why the process of building the paintings from abstractions is important.

Untitled, 2016. Oil and silkscreen on canvas, 30 x 22

“My paintings will hopefully outlive me, they will go on to live their own lives and I don't want to do anything that would prevent them from standing on their own,” he says. “The themes are shared points of reference that draw the viewer in.”

“All of my favorite art seems to have burrowed into me very slowly,” Helvie adds. “[So] I don't expect everyone to leave the show with an overwhelming sense of well-being, but rather my hope is they would walk away with a nagging question or an image they can't seem to shake.”

NOOL, installation view

Detail on Pipe Smoker (Cyclops)

Cave Ghost, 2016. Oil, enamel, and fleece on canvas, 38 x 28

NOOL runs until December 3rd at Massey Lyuben Gallery in New York City.

Click here to see more of Eric Helvie’s work.


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