whitehot | Summer 2007, WM Issue #4: Hellen van Meene
Hellen van Meene's (b. 1972) first solo show in is a retrospective, laudable considering how young she is. Since 1995, Van Meene has created compelling photographs of young people caught in the physical and emotional transitions of puberty. Her subjects are never conventional beauties; she purposefully seeks out people who openly wear their vulnerability rather than the hard shell of cliché.
It's fitting that her retrospective is hosted by the C/O Berlin. In a short seven years, the Cultural Forum for Photography has established a reputable program of contemporary art. The C/O is housed in a former imperial post office and the museum has smartly retained many elements of the original architecture: wood flooring, curved vaulted ceilings and peeling paint. It's a very Berlin combination of clean lines and the faded-wallpaper beauty, a juxtaposition that suits van Meene's work.
The square-format photographs are sized at a modest 30 x 30 centimeters and 40 x 40 centimeters, encouraging an intimate engagement with the images. The show fills four rooms on the upper floor where the C/O has opted to keep the old walls. The photographs are showcased on beautiful surfaces of stripped paint layers in sherbet hues of pistachio and pale rose. The room reflects the transitional tenderness of van Meene's subjects and the experience of viewing her work in this setting is wonderfully devoid of the clinical perfection that white walls emit.
Van Meene is interested in the way that internal changes manifest themselves on the surface, favoring juxtapositions like stretch marks that mirror the surrounding trees or a soft round body partly wrapped in a stiff, angular sheet. Puberty is a state of limbo when the pain of leaving childhood runs alongside excitement for the new, the constant reinvention of identity, the uncertainty and the ecstasy of becoming an adult. Her photographs are meticulously staged to express a place somewhere between childhood fantasy and adulthood.
The retrospective features young people from , , London, Berlin, , and her native . There are boys and girls with different body types including some pregnant teens. They are kindred in skin blemishes and the curious blurriness of features that comes with physical transformation. Though the subjects are lit and framed like classical portraits, a nod to the great Dutch masters, they are posed awkwardly. One girl's hair is caught by branches in wavy tendrils radiating out from her face, another holds her chin aloft as a bright beam of light slashes diagonally across her face, and another closes her eyes in a rapturous expression as she presses her face against a sheer window curtain. The models sometimes wear clothing they have long outgrown or garments they're not yet old enough or big enough to wear.
Van Meene has previously referred to her portraits as a sort of butterfly collection. Her subjects often appear to be in a state of vulnerability that lasts only long enough to take the photograph. We get the feeling that after the shoot, the models got up and melted back into the street, leaving van Meene with a token of a time and place in their lives.
Hellen van Meene: Portraits
10.05.07 – 08.07.07
C/O Berlin . Postfuhramt
Oranienburger Strasse / Ecke
Tucholskystrasse, 10117 Berlin
Open 11am – 8pm daily
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief