Anna Hepler’s “The Great Haul,” at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. The sculpture is made from plastic and makes reference to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo: Scott Peterman)

Thank you Sebastian Smee, for addressing an issue that feels extremely personal and one that I have written about here many times: the demand to narrate the visual art experience with language.

In writing about the Portland Museum of Art exhibit by Anna Helper, Smee begins his article addressing this issue head on:

One of the cruelest burdens we impose on artists is the obligation to talk about their work. It’s not that artists should somehow — like children of yore — be seen and not heard. They are often the most articulate and insightful of commentators. (And why wouldn’t they be? It’s their work.)

But over the past several decades, in the academy, in the media, in front of collectors and curators, talking and writing about one’s own work has increasingly become, for artists, an expectation, a requirement. In some ways, it’s a burden, even a kind of violation.

Why? Because the inner compulsions of the best artists tend to develop in a place that is out of reach of language. And so when artists are asked to explain their work, the constructions they come up with can be smooth, convincing, terrifically interesting — and yet in some strange way a betrayal of the original impulse.

Smee focuses this line of thinking to the more specific realm of Anna Helper’s work. He notes that in the past Helper has referred to her work as being connected with nature. She has written about a particular work speaking to the “temporary perfect sphere’’ of a dandelion whorl, or how another piece suggests “flocks of birds converge in midair.’’

But, says Smee, her self-defined contextualizing has now shifted:

In a recent conversation, just days after visiting her during the installation of “Makeshift,’’ Hepler was suddenly eager to de-emphasize her works’ connections with nature.

“I used to constantly point out things in the natural world,’’ she says by phone. “But my work is not about those things. I don’t go to nature for ideas.’’

Instead, Hepler says she is trying to get closer in her work “to something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world.’’ She doesn’t want to negate her works’ links with nature. But her real interests (and here she gives the impression of groping for words) lie in “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape. If that makes any sense. My work is like a 12th-generation Xerox of these [geometries].’’

Yes, yes and yes to Smee, to Helper, to this line of thought. Her distinction of not going to nature for ideas but turning to “something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world” is a point of view that I resonant with deeply. Her phrase, “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape” is not a groping for words IMHO but one of the most insightful descriptions of a process that is, granted, very hard to articulate.

And the show sounds compelling, provocative, visually stimulating. I’m planning my visit now.

Show info:

Anna Hepler
Portland Museum of Art
Through October 17, 2010

Anna Hepler, Cyanotype 6, 2009, inkjet on rag paper, 36 x 47 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.