Hellen van Meene’s Photographs Capture the Awkward Elegance of Youth
Showcasing works made over the past three years, Yancey Richardson Gallery tames the whimsy of the imagined with the authenticity of the real. At first glance, the exhibition, titled “Hellen van Meene: Five,” reads like a dreamy stream-of-consciousness narrative, with its fog of art-historically inspired imagery and girlish subjects. However, upon closer inspection, one finds nuance in a body of work that is part of van Meene’s ongoing study of adolescence. Equal parts improvised and scripted, her photographs capture the paradoxical potency and fragility of being young. With this particular show, van Meene fleshes out the powerful effect of costuming and posturing on adolescence.
Whether teenagers or girls on the verge of adolescence, all of the Dutch artist’s sun-soaked models evoke a serene nostalgia that seems to be contradictory to their obvious naiveté and youthful awkwardness. Choreographed as much as composed, van Meene’s images have a theatrical quality that draws attention to the machinations of performance: the intricate relationship between props and action. One untitled 2015 work in the show depicts a girl in a red dress with a bird perched on her finger, showcasing how van Meene, like a watchmaker, carefully assembles all the elements of the image but then lets chance take its course.
The staged components of van Meene’s images are just as important as the serendipitous ones. In this body of work, hair is occasionally used like a mask. By hiding her subjects’ faces entirely with their locks, van Meene takes away their identities while simultaneously accentuating their bodies. Their expressions communicate themselves through the movements and postures of their limbs and torsos. Small gestures and details appear magnified by the absence of information.
Often cited for its relationship to 17th-century painting, van Meene’s work has a classical aesthetic that seems to lend her models a certain gravitas. Like the pale royalty of the 1600s, the women in van Meene’s photographs have an elegance that feels inorganic yet timeless. The earliest-created image in the show, which features the exposed shoulder blades of a waif-like subject, exemplifies how the artist refreshes traditional postures by introducing more contemporary tropes.
While not implemented across the board, props are essential to van Meene’s storytelling. A tower of mattresses becomes an impossible bed. A trio of poodles becomes a united pack. Strung together, these vignettes begin to reveal a larger narrative. Like a coming-of-age novel told through pictures, the exhibition draws attention to the nobility of childhood.
“Hellen van Meene: Five” is on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, Dec. 10, 2015–Jan. 23, 2016.