Origami Meets Architecture in Rachel Hellmann’s Sculptural Paintings

  • Image courtesy of Elizabeth Houston Gallery.

    Image courtesy of Elizabeth Houston Gallery.

From across the room, the latest pieces by Rachel Hellmann look like oversized origami. Elegant and brightly hued, their geometric shapes are patterned with bold stripes that fold onto themselves along crisp creases. But these aren’t paper; they’re wood.

Hellmann, who lives and works in Terre Haute, Indiana, came to the medium naturally: She’s from a family of carpenters. “My early education as an artist taught me the care for craft, love of tools and pride in working with my hands,” the artist has said. “This history led to my interest in painting as an object—something that occupies a space in a more physical way and asks to be experienced from multiple locations within that space.”

Those “paintings as objects” are the basis of “State of Play,” Hellmann’s current show at Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York. While each piece is distinct, they all exemplify Hellmann’s keen interest in color, geometry, and movement.

Though each of these sculptural works is acrylic on wood or board, some are rendered in dark shades of black and gray, like the vaguely ominous Hole in the Sky (2016), while others, like the cheerful Double Dutch (2016), are painted in lively grass green and ruby red. Seemingly every color of the rainbow makes an appearance, often side by side with gradations of the same hue, as if in a spectrum.

Those subtle variations on a color—the blues in Glide (2016), the warm oranges of I Spy (2016)—create the feel of a vibration along the wood surface. Combined with the origami-like “folds” in each painting, and the fact that each piece is three-dimensional, the sense of movement is unmistakable. As viewer, you’ll be tempted to walk around each piece and consider it from every angle.

Indeed, viewing the individual works in “State of Play” is like walking through a room and noticing the angles of ceilings and walls, the shapes of doorways and windows. “I paint on shaped forms to instill a sense of play in my work,” Hellmann has said, “and to suggest the experience of an interior architectural space.”

It might seem like a long way from origami to architecture, from miniature paper sculptures to rooms and buildings large enough to walk through or live in. But Hellmann is attuned to geometry and the finer details. And, like an architect, she turns the concept into something tactile that calls for human experience.


—Bridget Gleeson


Rachel Hellmann: State of Play” is on view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery, New York, Sept. 14–Nov. 13, 2016.