False and True

False and True

Rachel Hellerich creates extra-dimensional paintings. You’d be forgiven for not knowing exactly what that means, because, until you see her work—especially in person—it sounds unimaginable. But Hellerich’s right at home in the impossible.

To stand in her West Haven studio, surrounded by vibrant, eerie, utterly strange paintings, is to be transported. Not out, but in. You find yourself stepping closer and closer to her work, trying to chart the tiny modulations of space and design, watching the static paint begin to shift, turn and dilate. There are marbled swaths of sea, maybe sky, windows that look into pale desolation, metallic stairs leading into alien vistas and, above all, patterns. Grids, diamonds and zigzags are prevalent, alongside baroque designs inspired by shields and traditional Sicilian textiles.

“I approach paint as a material that has many different sides,” Hellerich says. She’s been painting for 10 years, after an art education that included studies of fiber materials, installation art, drawing and architecture. Her influences are just as omnivorous as her background: Asian architecture and woodblocks, science-fiction films, textiles and the ocean view beyond her Milford home all play into “false realities” she says she creates in the work.

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Sci-fi landscapes, desolate and looming, with their baked reds, moody blacks and neon flashes, draw her in “because they don’t exist.” Her paintings, which she describes as “geometric abstraction, using shapes to create illusionary spaces,” walk the hypnotic line between demanding and resisting interpretation.

In The Hunter, a grayscale piece partially inspired by the 1927 film Metropolis, a gray sphere hangs like a sterile moon over an intricate pattern reminiscent of herringbone. The motif shimmers and shifts, leading the eye towards what Hellerich calls a “textural drag” at the bottom left corner of the piece—a bucking, churning swell of black and grey, tipped with white. It’s a mountain range. It’s an ocean breaker. It’s a swirl of stardust escaping a black hole. And then the piece hurtles towards the next pattern, vertical this time, clean lines like a cosmic barcode, overseen by a blank, staring sphere—an eye? A second moon? “I don’t really want to tell anyone,” she says. “I like people to have their own interpretation.”

For the largest piece currently hanging in her studio, Entry to the End, you don’t have to leave earth’s orbit to find yourself somewhere menacing and bizarre. Here, three patterns, each intricate and dizzying in their own right, come together on the walls of a structure. It looks protective, secretive, with golden gates and a trapdoor in the floor that opens into plummeting space. Hellerich was influenced by her war-torn Italian heritage, explaining that the painting is inspired by Mussolini’s compound, where he spent his last years in a maze of “bunkers and tunnels” in a desperate bid to outfox the Allies.

But here, the historical horror house is made sumptuous by patterns—Sicilian on one wall, Japanese on the floor and a third that pays homage to the victims of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. The patterns grow over the walls like lichen or moss—culture and beauty reclaiming space, making it odder and more lovely.

Meticulous gridwork, the skeleton for her hypnotic patterns, undergirds each of her pieces. It can take months to finish a piece, but Hellerich says she finds the minuscule detailing work “meditative.” Usually. “Ok, this one was maddening,” she says, pointing to a recent large-scale work, Step to Ascension, in which two patterns, one triangular and one rectangular, go through modulations of color and depth, turning in on themselves, drawing the eye back and up and somehow through the panel.

Her work is a testament to patience, on the level of individual paintings but also as a guiding principle throughout her career. “I’ve made so many bad paintings to get to where I am now. I don’t think I made a good painting until I was 30. You learn as you go,” she says. “I saw glimmers along the way. The trick is not to get frustrated. If you really are interested in pursuing your creative drive, you have to be patient, let things develop.”

In one of her most recent works, Temple, a small red citadel glows like an ember at the center of prismatic bands of color. The top of the painting is devoted to lines—thick horizontal slats done in silvery metallics stack themselves up against a deepening red background. It’s a dreamscape, like much of her work, but it has that strength of presence which accompanies truly great abstraction: It feels more real than reality.

Rachel Hellerich

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photos 1 (detail) and 6 (detail) by Dan Mims. Photos 2, 3 and 7 provided courtesy of Rachel Hellerich. Photos 4 (detail) and 5 (detail) by Sorrel Westbrook.

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