A Conversation with Jessica Helfand

This month, artist, designer, and writer Jessica Helfand joins Caltech as the Winter 2020 artist-in-residence in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences' Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture, which is administered jointly by the division and The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Helfand is a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Eye and Communications Arts magazines, and founding editor of the website Design Observer. She taught at Yale for two decades and has held artist residencies at the American Academy in Rome and the Bogliasco Foundation, among others. Her most recent book, Face: A Visual Odyssey, was published by MIT Press last fall. On January 16, Helfand will take part in a noontime talk with Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology Ralph Adolphs on the theme of the "face."

What appealed to you about this artist-in-residence opportunity?

The short answer is that the intersection of art and science is in my blood. The longer answer is that my favorite kind of artist residency is one where I get to work with scientists.

The companionability of art and science actually runs in my family. My father was a collector of prints, posters, and ephemera, and an enthusiastic donor to and supporter of The Huntington; both of my children studied history of science in college. My own studio practice has always been focused on the visualization of human biology, often exploring the line between abstraction and representation. The paintings in my last book were based on tissue histologies and the work I am engaged in now revisits the medical archive as a way to think about the modern portrait. I can think of no better place to be this winter.

What are some of the topics and questions you hope to engage with while you are at Caltech?

First—from a content perspective—my scientific aptitude is minimal, but my curiosity about the brain, and its relationship to the human countenance, is huge. I'll be giving a lunchtime talk with Ralph Adolphs this month, and importing a historian of science, Sharrona Pearl, a medical ethics professor at Drexel University, who has written extensively on the ethics of facial representation, to join us. Together, we'll be discussing all of this, and I expect this is a conversation that may lead to more conversations, collaborations, and insights for us all.

Second—from an operational perspective—I am eager to explore the tech side of Caltech to see what I can learn that I might incorporate into my practice. Currently I am working with very large-scale images in my studio. I begin with high-resolution scans from glass plate negatives, and then enlarge, print, and paint them. Exploring a century of technology in the gestation and reproduction of these images is a huge challenge, and I am eager for access to new technologies, guidance, and expertise in this area.

And you will be teaching a class?

Several years ago, I created a class for Yale freshmen called Studies in Visual Biography that encouraged students to learn how to tell stories other than their own. It centered on mining the university's many archives to discover and amplify forgotten materials. It's a great course for an undergrad: It linked high culture to low culture and students had both reading and writing assignments and produced work in the studio. On the heels of my new book, this course felt ripe for a refresh. Caltech students in my class will read and write, and watch films and create visual things that don't oblige them to be artists so much as astute witnesses. It strikes me that this kind of observation is a core conceit in science and lends itself beautifully to all kinds of visual observation.

How does The Huntington figure in your plans?

The class I am teaching will most certainly avail itself of some of the treasures at The Huntington. The research capabilities of an institution like The Huntington mean that students can learn about primary sources in multiple ways and the fact that the collection is in San Marino, so close to Caltech, is priceless.

Caltech students are immersed in the world of science and technology. What do you hope they will gain from their interactions with you and your broader/different perspective?

Observation is observation. Looking, listening, thinking, conjecturing … all original ideas begin with a kind of scrutiny that is at once framed by discipline and open to discovery. Because I have always taught students in a university, not in an art school, I think I have a baseline understanding of what it means to approach the visual world from a different place. Teaching non-artists is always a little bit like being a foreign exchange student. Therein lies the challenge—and, I suspect, the fun.

Your most recent book zeroed in on the perception and representation of the face over time. Where did this line of inquiry start for you?

I have always been fascinated by portraiture, but over the years began to think more and more about everything from identity politics to surveillance systems, while also witnessing a seemingly limitless public appetite for selfies. On the one hand, you've got an endangerment of civil liberties, while on the other, skyrocketing sales in devices that threaten to undermine, sabotage, or even eviscerate a person's very claim to privacy and protections.

While researching this book, I came upon a collection of more than 10,000 images at the Cushing Archive at Yale of people who were being treated for brain cancer over a century ago. The archive consists of 8x10 glass plate negatives of an anonymous assortment of surgical patients—old, young, black, white, rich, poor—most of which have never been seen. The faces here are anonymous yet universal, their expressions powerful, poignant, and profoundly human.

I am extracting these photographs from the archive, expanding their scale, introducing color, printing or projecting them onto paper and canvas, and painting over them. [An example is shown above.]

Are there other cultural riches you hope to take advantage of during your time in the Los Angeles area?

To begin, I'm trying to adapt my new book as a television series, so am grateful for the proximity to producers in LA with whom I might work to explore this direction. There are a number of art and architecture programs where I have colleagues doing interesting work, such as ArtCenter and CalArts, and at USC, where I will be doing a short residency in April, following my time at Caltech.

I'm sure there will be more—much more! I realize I am trading ice and snow for fires and earthquakes, but I am very optimistic. And excited.

Written by Judy Hill

Caltech Communications