Sylvie van Helden’s new show at R Street NW’s Elizabeth Roberts Gallery is called “The Edible Series,” but don’t get any ideas about having her artwork for dinner. “They sort of look like candy to me,” the artist says of the seven pieces on display. “But the material they’re made of is so industrial and toxic you wouldn’t dream of eating it.”
Most of the material, at least. The rest is harmless: strands of dried spaghetti and linguine, a signature ingredient in van Helden’s work for the past two years. The 29-year-old Baltimore resident says she chose pasta as a medium for its shape and texture, rather than any metaphoric value. “I was collecting a lot of different pasta shapes because I was interested in patterning,” she recalls. “I had spray-painted all of this pasta, and I thought, Well, why not use the pasta in the work?”
At first glance, van Helden’s wall-mounted pieces bring to mind the works of the Washington Color School, particularly the lithe stripe paintings of Gene Davis. But the works in “The Edible Series” are a little more sculptural than anything in the Color School canon: The pasta is held in place by thick layers of translucent epoxy resin, which the artist pours over plywood panels painted with groups of vertical or horizontal stripes. Once hardened, the resin is sanded and painted with a new set of stripes, and then the process is repeated. Creating a complete piece, which ends up being 2 to 3 inches thick, can take months.
In addition, van Helden hangs her pieces on changeable wallpaper backgrounds inspired by postwar American interior design, turning them into “accessories.” “I’ve always been interested in design, and I’ve always been interested in things that are domestic,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to find a way to combine them.”
Those interests, however, fail to betray van Helden’s first chosen vocation: science. Raised in Canada and France before moving to the Midwest, she studied biology at the University of Michigan. After she graduated, in 1995, van Helden wanted to pursue both science and art. She considered Michigan’s program in medical illustration, one of the most prestigious in the field. Medical illustration can be a lucrative profession, but the prospect of her work appearing only in med-school textbooks held little appeal. “I just realized it would be too tedious,” she says. “I wasn’t really interested in carrying out someone else’s ideas.”
So after a year doing genetics research at her alma mater, van Helden went back to college, earning a second undergraduate degree in studio art from Eastern Michigan University. She followed that up with an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Since finishing her degree in 2002, she’s stayed put, teaching design classes at Loyola College.
Van Helden says that if her scientific background still lingers in her art, it’s mostly in her deliberate working method. Still, she does mention the DNA fingerprints she produced as a laboratory researcher as a possible source for “The Edible Series.” “I would run DNA samples through electrophoresis gels and you would get a striped pattern,” she says—and then laughs. “That was a long time ago.” —Mike DeBonis