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dark inspiration

Gottfried Helnwein, known for his uneasy works, taps downtown for . . .

January 27, 2008|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

From the outside you wouldn't know what sort of workshop this door obscures -- the fantasies or nightmares. Gottfried Helnwein's modest studio sits at the end of a quiet downtown cul-de-sac; its largest window offers up an unhindered view of power lines, asphalt and a vast industrial space a few blocks away, whose intricate graffiti he keeps watch on. "Truly, it's quite remarkable."

It's not exactly the heart of the city. Perhaps though, you could say it is the spleen -- the seat of L.A.'s spirit. This narrow curve of artery, crowded with faded brick or concrete two- and three-story structures, rises above pock-marked asphalt that snakes through the edges of the arts district. Here on this evocative, sketchy block, the Austrian-born artist fell in love with Los Angeles and decided to decamp his Irish castle (part-time anyway) to call L.A. home.

As much as what he physically keeps close by while he works -- the books, newspapers, CDs, rubber dolls and plastic figurines -- the city's essence itself feeds his dark, uneasy work, which tends toward hyper-real renderings of violence and the grotesque: bandaged, broken children, scenes of torture, pooling blood, grimacing visages. "Ireland is paradise," he says, "but almost too. For my work I need an urban environment."

Some might think that Los Angeles -- its unrelenting sun, its one-step-away-from-reality perch -- is an incongruous place for someone like Helnwein. What he creates, regardless the medium -- watercolor, oil, photography, performance art, sculpture -- is a thorny psychological excursion into our sublimated self, our obscured corners and dark humors.

His explorations into war crimes, Catholicism, disfigurement and the Holocaust are both unflinching and surgical. "Epiphany I (Adoration of a Magi)," a 1996 painting, renders the infant -- interpreted both as Hitler and Christ -- as being visited by not three men but five, in S.S. uniforms. His work is in museum collections around the world, including those of LACMA and the Smithsonian, and critics have labeled it grotesque, fearless, disturbing and "veer[ing] dangerously close to offensive." People are surprised, he says, when they discern that he doesn't "seem insane."

The visceral reactions, he's come to realize, have as much to do with what's already in the viewers head as what he's created. "It's not my piece of canvas with tiny fractions of pigment," he explains. "The . . . art . . . has the potential of putting that finger on the spot, and it can trigger something that you'd rather not like to look at. But it's [already] in your own mind. That's what I think art can do."

L.A., says Helnwein, "has this strange magic." He'd been visiting for years, and something about the city took hold. "I can give you a long list of things that are going bad right now, but if you want to look for something good, if there is a place that comes close to really, total freedom, L.A. is that place. . . . L.A. allows you the freedom to dream up impossible things."

'Struggling with the world'

He walks the seven minutes to the studio from his home, often in the dark of morning, always surrounded by the theater of his thoughts. "I read a lot and study every day," he says. "The ideas are always in me. Most of the time I'm working in my head, not on the canvas. It's like I'm struggling with the world around me."

By the time he's in the studio and has made a cup of tea, Helnwein has already processed the morning's news. It hums in his head. The walk allows him to synthesize.

Helnwein stands in the studio's entry room, a spacious, high-ceilinged space surrounded by 13 grand, new canvases in various stages of near-completion -- a bandaged young girl with a bloody head wound; the nose of a gun pointed at a doll; a raging Mouseketeer in blackface. Helnwein himself is as shrouded as one of the gauze-wrapped, back-lighted figures in those paintings -- his forehead is wrapped in a bandanna, and glasses with opaque lenses hide expression, intention. He's just nose, a flash of smile, a slick cowlick of hair jutting up, eluding capture.

Although he lives with a loop of disquieting images in his head and on his walls, there are plenty who eagerly pay to possess them -- Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn and Robert Wilson among them. He's collaborated with Marilyn Manson, done cover art for the Scorpions, designed sets and costumes for U.S. and European operas, including a much-discussed L.A. Opera production of Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" in 2005.

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