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Deceptively Whimsy Paintings with a Political Stroke

Artist Sophie von Hellermann isn't afraid to be cute, girly, and playful. Case in point: She answered our questions with drawings. But her work is anything but light.

by Olivia Parkes
Aug 19 2016, 8:45pm

"Fighting on the Beach," 2013.

Sophie von Hellermann's paintings are not concerned with mastery. They're moving too fast, like a mind caught in the mobile logic of a daydream, each image already on the brink of being something else. Thin dashes of color bloom in broad washes, capturing—but only just—naked women floating through hula hoops, or a pair of frock-coated duelists facing off in a landscape that looks like it will disappear with the first shot.

Composed with pure pigment, raw canvas, and lots of water, everything von Hellermann depicts looks like it's about to dissolve. The German-born, London-based artist isn't afraid of "light" subjects either, whether she's painting a party girl in a spaceship, a starlet sprawled with her sunglasses among the latest tabloids, or a blonde messing up her manicure. There's a political point to all this whimsy—by elevating girly imagery to the realm of "serious" painting, von Hellermann pokes fun at the macho conventions of a tradition composed largely of men pairing technical virtuosity with weighty subjects.

"Horror Picture Show," 2011. Courtesy Vilma Gold, London

Von Hellermann packs her punches with a pastel palette, incorporating current affairs, classical mythology, pop culture, and Romantic literature in imaginary scenes that embrace the sentimental as an essential vector of inner life. But von Hellermann's real "mastery" is her ability to capture the spontaneity of thought: the way the mind assembles images from things one has seen, read, and experienced over the course of a day or a lifetime. Effervescent—and evanescent—quick marks create unpredictably when they strike the surface: Von Hellermann's paintings capture the blurry fantasy of life. In a move that feels appropriate, she answered our questions with drawings.

BROADLY: You studied in Dusseldorf, then at the Royal College of Art in London. What was your art education like as a painter?

Why did you stay in London?

Are you working from found or mental images?

What's your relationship with German painting—as a particular set of concerns, a history, and an approach? How has it informed you as an artist?

Your own work is incredibly light—washy, fresh. Has it always been like this, or did you experiment with different kinds of painting before finding your style?

What artists do you gravitate towards, in history or contemporary practice?

"Crying for the Sunset," 2011. Installation view, Vilma Gold, London. Courtesy Vilma Gold, London

In your installation Cold as a Witch's Tit at Firstsite, Colchester, in 2013, you painted portraits of women killed during the witch trials during the English Civil War in the 17th century. What drew you that topic?

Tell me about the piece After a Fashion from your 2015 exhibition at Vilma Gold, A Play With Fire. The portraits are arranged in a kind of pyre—who are they?

It's not the first time you've done that—erecting the portraits on a kind of teepee-shaped scaffolding. What draws you to that installation form?

In several exhibitions you've also painted the walls of the gallery in which your canvases hang. What do you like about expanding like that?

How are you working with narrative? Do you have a clear idea of what's happening in each painting while you're working?

There's a painting in your show The Lucky Hand at Greene Naftali—a woman hanging up sheets with other women's faces on them. What led you to that particular image?

What are you working on now?

Lead image: "Fighting on the Beach," 2013. Courtesy of Greene Naftali