Bruce Helander's collages have that "high degree of immediate absurdity"—Breton's phrase—that marks them as surreal. The method in the madness of surrealist art is what Breton called "pure psychic automatism," "a condition in which activity is carried out without conscious knowledge." This allows one to associate, more or less freely—playfully or compulsively, depending on how deeply unconscious one is—images that one is ordinarily conscious of to "extraordinary" effect, as though in a dream. "Automatism" and "free association" are psychoanalytic terms—the former is from Pierre Janet, the latter from Sigmund Freud (both of whom Breton acknowledges as "influences")—suggesting that Helander's collages invite psychological interpretation: they certainly do look like dream images—Surrealism's "simulated dreams," as Breton called them. Indeed, At the Beach, Fun in the Sun , High Heel Helper, and My Blue Heaven are explicitly sexual dreams—images of seductive dream girls skewed into what psychoanalysts call (alluring) part objects, more particularly, breasts and buttocks, with some shapely legs thrown in for good measure.

But, let's quickly note, there's something ironical—playfully ironic—in this skewing and fragmenting—this surreal shattering of the image in the very act of presenting it. The blue heaven is unexpected black, and the dream girls prove oddly unsubstantial and ungraspable, dissolving into the atmosphere, leaving haunting residues of titillating flesh. Helander's dream girls are tantalizingly out of reach, as dream girls—mirages that disappear as soon as they are approached—always are. Helander's images are peculiarly "anti-representational," or incoherently representational, however ostensibly representational, that is, however much we recognize that we are looking at a glamorous female figure—an agelessly attractive, conventionally beautiful American Dream Girl. She's the mythical, completely make-believe goddess of popular culture—it is always "redefining reality," as Richard Skybrow ironically put it. More particularly, she's the perverse embodiment of what William James famously called the Bitch Goddess of materialistic Success that America promises. Helander in effect dismembers her, suggesting that she's just an transient illusion, not to say a big lie.

Croaked Double Elvis, 2012, painted plaster on artist's shelf, with embellishments and found objects, 13 x 33 x 11 1/2 inches.

Croaked Double Elvis, 2012, painted plaster on artist's shelf, with embellishments
and found objects, 13 x 33 x 11 1/2 inches.

He treats Elvis Presley in the same ironical disillusioning way. Helander is also obsessed with Presley, as Croaked Double Elvis, Elvis Revisited, and Artist as Elvis (Past Performance) show, to the extent of identifying with him, with anxious irony: he's another disappointment, another fake dream figure, another fraud. He's a mythical, make-believe god in the pantheon of American popular culture, another betrayal of the American Dream in the very act of personifying it. Like Helander's American Dream Girl, Presley, an American Dream Boy, and like her a narcissistic heartthrob, is a case of arrested development, physical as well as emotional. The older he became, the more he struggled to look young, which is perhaps why he died young, as the ancient myth tells us Narcissus did by falling in love with his own image. And just as they are alluring sirens, so Presley sang siren songs. Helander skews and mocks him with more outraged energy than he brings to the desirable demoiselles of Florida--which is where Helander lives, as Lounge Chair Lizard (presumably watching them go by), with its peculiarly lurid turquoise green, makes clear—perhaps because Presley was self-destructive, while the demoiselles fade into thin air, dematerialize into unstable fantasies.

Like all dreams, both promise more than they can deliver, although Presley seems much more solid and real for Helander, as the Croaked Double Elvis sculpture suggests. The small croaking frogs—Helander's surrogate comic commentators—suggest that his fame and fortune are a joke that went to his head: thus his doubled—"swelled"—head. Helander decapitates him, but he grows another head, suggesting that he's a hydra-headed monster, infinitely reproducible, as media icons tend to be. But the smiling frogs stand over what is in effect his corpse, ridiculing him, and suggesting his inherent ridiculousness—the ridiculousness of his success and popularity, for it didn't save him from himself. I immediately thought of Aristophanes's croaking frogs when I saw the work, which shows Helander's ability to make convincing three-dimensional work. He's a cunning comedian, reminding us, as Aristotle wrote, that comedy deals with the ridiculously real, indeed, a reality that seems to ridicule itself.

At the Beach, 2012, paper collage on museum board, 25 x 18 1/2 inches.

At the Beach, 2012, paper collage on museum board, 25 x 18 1/2 inches.


Fun in the Sun, 2012, original paper collage on museum board, 25 x 15 inches.

Fun in the Sun, 2012, original paper collage on museum board, 25 x 15 inches.

Even "pure art" is treated with ironical irreverence by Helander. An abstract expressionist painting is a Branch Office—of Abstract Expressionism Inc., or is each earth-brown painterly gesture a dead branch on a barren tree of art? Snobbish Mr. New Yorker—Helander's famously witty cover for the magazine of that name, reducing Manhattan to a fractured map of itself—has its Eye on Jersey, suggesting that's the place to really be, at least if one wants beaches and fun. The work is a subtle Sidesplitter, to refer to another of Helander's works—also poking ironical fun at the popular culture's comic strip figures (Mr. New Yorker is one, and so is Presley) while using them to ridicule the society they represent. The skull in Pirate's Paradise has two evil eyes and is split in two, the Trunk Show is a shambles, Imperial Cove is marked by a surreally giant growth but its glory is long gone, and S.O.S. is a panicked cry for help in the midst of an incoherent mess of manic details. Helander may be the bronco buster in Bronco, but the bucking horse is ready to throw him. The lasso ties head and hooves together, suggesting that it's about to trip over itself. Helander has come absurdly full circle, as it were.

High Heel Helper, 2007, original paper collage on museum board, 22 x 14 1/2 inches.

High Heel Helper, 2007, original paper collage on museum board, 22 x 14 1/2 inches.

Collage readily lends itself to surreal irony by reason of its use of incommensurate images. It shows the unconscious playing with itself. It shows the unconscious truth behind the conscious façade. It shows the personal feelings behind the social facts. Ironic ridicule is a debunking device. It punches holes in power and authority—the power and authority of the popular culture in Helander's case. It entertains us by satirizing entertainment. It also reminds us that from the start that Surrealism used popular cultural images to absurd effect, perhaps most noteworthily in Max Ernst's collages. Avant-garde art is socially critical—in dialectically negative, unresolved relationship with society, as thinkers as different as Renato Poggioli and T. W. Adorno have argued. Helander's collages continue this tradition of avant-garde negativity, if in a seemingly lighter way—deceptively lighter way, for there is a slashing aggressivity and sardonic sharpness to his irony. He offers us critical avant-garde comedy attacking social icons and illusions in which we are asked to invest our deepest feelings. He gives us the dregs of our unconscious desires and social illusions, ridiculing them and himself—and the populist art he uses to reveal them—in the course of doing so. His art is a surreal heap of fragments, ironically accumulated to shore up a sense of self, as T. S. Eliot said, that may exist only as an ironical illusion.

My Blue Heaven, 2007, unique painting on museum board with printed background, hand-embellished with spray paint stencils and colored pencil, 57 1/2 x 36 inches.

My Blue Heaven, 2007, unique painting on museum board with printed background,
hand-embellished with spray paint stencils and colored pencil, 57 1/2 x 36 inches.

The question is whether these ruins form an "unstable irony" or a "stable irony," to use Wayne Booth's important distinction. Does the unconscious "truth asserted or implied" by the irony—the unconscious truth that "undermines" conscious truth by means of irony—show and leave the self in ruins, so that "no stable reconstruction can be built from the ruins revealed through the irony"—or does the "underlying reality" of intense existential feeling revealed by Helander's relentless ironic play with widely known social images "artistically" stabilize to convey a sense of unique self? I suggest both/and rather than either/or. The ironic playfulness of Helander's art suggests a self that is able to steady itself by imaginatively acknowledging its own self-contradiction.