Well known for his breathtaking monumental site-specific murals and monochromatic photorealistic style, Guido van Helten is a master of detail. Based in Brisbane, Australia but a complete globetrotter, his paintings are always reflective and he adds specific elements of the places he’s visiting and he is painting at.
His work is instantly recognizable and based on his own photographic reference material. Guido ‘travels’ in all the extended meaning of the verb. He immersed himself into places, people and different cultures to create his artwork. He applies a cerebral view to the profound and mundane alike, but also is one of the most perceptive, genuine artists I know. If anyone could have been accused of thinking too much about his work and the complete meaning of it, that could be him.
I met him a couple of months ago in Mexico City, while he was painting in Ecatepec for the Telecable project in Estado de Mexico, coordinated by Konect. He painted one of the aerial-tramway stations and also painted an impressive mural inspired by his visit to the Instituto de la Mujer–a non-profit organization which focus on support for women in this community bringing together symbolism representative of the movements against female homicides–where he got to know some of the horrible statistics about Ecatepec, which is on of the most dangerous places to be female with the largest rate of Feminicide (female homicides) in Mexico. Where the culture of ‘machismo’ (sexism), domestic violence, corruption add up to an average of 6 female homicides per day.
We met up in Colonia Roma, Mexico City. After almost three weeks of work, Guido was still excited and inspired by the city, even though he didn’t really get the chance to explore it that much because he painted two massive murals in Ecatepec. My very first impression of him was of a mysterious, enigmatic, observant and shy guy. After he smoke a cigarrette and he drank one beer, maybe two or three, he started to open up more and talked about his experience in Mexico and how interesting Ecatepec was for him. He was leaving soon to go to the South of Mexico to spend a couple of days off, before heading to London, and then to Scandinavia.
I was very intrigued about some of his previous work and I couldn’t hold my tongue, so I asked him about his experience in Chernobyl. I was so damned intrigued by the fact Guido has painted there; in such an interesting place but under such extreme conditions. He told me was one of the weirdest experiences he’s ever had. He had to finish the mural in about five to six hours because of the radiation exposure.
When he left Mexico City, I was happy to know he was exactly as I pictured him. He is so passionate about his work, with hungry to learn, to grow, and travel for a profund reason, and his reason for living is painting. He doesn’t paint to be seen. He is a true artist and always go further.
He spends a meticulous amount of time and effort when developing a concept for his murals. He gets involved and learns about any place he’s visiting. Guido is capable to portray the soul of any city and its people. The atmosphere and nostalgia of his work reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema. His creative process ends up to show the contrast between sadness and beauty in just one piece, and that is something only a true auteur could do. His work suddently becomes poetic harmony.
Constantly striving to perfect his skills as an artist, he created one of his most impressive pieces in Brim, Victoria. Depicting the portrait of four local figures on six 30 meter high silos, this piece took him one month to finish it, and Brim Silos Mural Project was amongst finalists of Sir John Sulman Prize in 2016.
After that, he painted a mural in Avdeevka, on the very front line of eastern Ukraine, where fighting between Russian forces and Ukrainian troops still takes place on daily basis. He painted a local school teacher named Marina Marchenko,who has felt first hand effects of the ongoing war while continuing to teach Ukrainian language in the local school.
“The mural is placed on the outskirts of the town at the last checkpoint before the road to continues to the frontline before the occupied city of Donetsk. Towards the outskirts of this town the buildings here show the effects of battles from the previous years with bullet holes and empty apartments from the damage from Grad rockets with the frontline now sitting 3.5 km from this location. In the opposite side of this building still live resilient residents who have grown used to the sounds of war, machine guns and artillery which can be heard intermittently throughout the day and night.” – Guido van Helten
With this mural he demonstrates, once again, his strong spirit for his artwork. He says something I really respect and admire: “I only wanted to give the locals something that will take their thoughts away from the rough reality, if only for a few seconds.”
The last time I saw Guido, was a couple of months ago in Jacksonville, Florida. He was part of the Art(Re)Public mural festival, after the US elections. When I got there, he was in the process of getting a wall. He developed a concept for his mural, once again, under such interesting circumstances. Everyone wonders about what really happened on November 11th. It was the culmination of an explosive and polarizing campaign that called into question the ideals of American democracy and also opened up a time of increasing divide.
I remember to walk down the streets in Jacksonville and feeling a cold breeze in the air. it wasn’t the weather. It was a soulless, insipid, dreary breeze. Something was missing: Hope. Even though, I got to know some of the most amazing human beings during my time in Jacksonville. People who really care about their country. People who really wants unity and equality.
During that time, Guido was developing the concept for his mural. After some weeks of hard work, and just 4.5 days of painting, he finished one of the biggest murals in Jacksonville, Florida. He portrayed Connell, a passionate activist and member of the Deaf speaking community, and Sara a Palestinian American girl, as they where speaking passionately at a movement in downtown Jacksonville standing for tolerance, diversity and respect while Guido was there.
“Its a signal of solidarity. Unity between all classes whether you are white, black, Hispanic, gay, straight, transgender, I believe this represents an ongoing struggle in the fight for justice.” – Connell.
Here’s an interview about his experience and what he told me about it:
Instagrafite – Based on your previous work and what you achieve as an artist though your murals, which is to give a message based on a concept and your experience in the place you are, for this mural, in particular, what was the the main element of these two characters that caught your attention to paint them as a representation of unity, diversity and respect? Why them? I know you were at the protests after the US elections and you took some pictures of Connell and also you got the chance to meet him, but why these guys?
Guido – Usually I spend some time seeking out an image which speaks some connection to place to the site in which I will paint, who have something to say, or simply are just representative something I feel needs some kind of representation. Here in Jacksonville I found it difficult the first days in, it took a bit of work and I realized that it would take some deeper connection. I stumbled upon a protest movement during this time and started to see a side of the city I hadn’t yet been exposed to, here where people, passionate and powerful at a time of change and uncertainty not only in America but across the world. This is an important time, I felt here that the strength of what was going on represented not only what I connected with, but also something positive which is important to the future. Connell and Sara are strong speakers and inspirational people, but aside from that there is a kindness in what they had to say and what they felt for there city and for the people there in this town.
Instagrafite – If you could describe in one word your experience in Jacksonville and with this mural, what would it be?
Guido – Perseverance
Instagrafite – On the recent documentary of you, by the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles “Portrait of an Artist,” where you painted a mural on a ship in the North Coast of Iceland and the Arctic Circle, you mentioned you are always looking for adventure, and painting for you is more about the adventure to paint and the places you have the chance to visit and experience… So in Jacksonville, what was the adventure behind making this mural?
Guido – Adventure doesn’t always have to be climbing mountains or an idea of a cliché, It can also be that Interest in the mundane places, the forgotten about and sometimes I seem to find myself in the right places at the right time. Here is a historic time a shift in global consciousness here or elsewhere in the world, Its an adventure to be in any place if you look at it in a certain way.
“I wouldn’t label myself anything, I am a painter and an artist firstly, I suppose it cant be hidden that my work shows an interest in society and people, like most artists, my work can sometimes comment on current issues but maybe that’s how people read it. Mostly my work is just a simple representation of a truth that exists. It is figurative work and it has elements of realism to it, therefore it’s an expression of what I see as real.” – Guido van Helten
Instagrafite – Do you think this mural speaks for the people of Jacksonville and belongs to them? Why?
Guido – I think it belongs to whoever wants to take ownership but of course it is also theirs, I mean this is not about the people who are represented, obviously it has given them a voice, and I am glad it has had that effect. But for me I was looking to place an image there that communicates a message between people the idea of connection, there are many other stories to it… None of them need to be literal…
Instagrafite – What is next for you, as an artist? If you could change anything in the world right now, what would it be?
Guido – Im just working on developing my direction, a lot of it is still forming technically and conceptually, I have a lot to learn and to change, there are always new challenges in my work which is what I enjoy about it. I don’t think that art or the idea of painting as ‘world changing’ is a realistic idea and I also think that it is arrogant to believe in it in that way. Painting on walls is after all just a painting on a wall, but the effect it can have is pretty unknown in the long term, for some people they love and some hate, but I think most at least stop and think… and that’s enough for me.
I’m so sorry to tell you this Guido, but even though you are not a true believer of the idea of ‘art’ as a ‘world changer,’ art is the most powerful tool we have to communicate, and that is valuable for discovering, exploring and interpreting reality. Art is capable to translating experiences across space and time. But this is just an opinion of someone who truly believes in you, and your artwork.
Finally, check out the @followthewanderers project, where the 5th episode features Guido van Helten, as he paints seven freight train carriages in the flour milling town of Manildra, 300kms west of Sydney. His artwork, titled “Salt of the Earth” features portraits of people local to the area, painted from photographs taken by Guido during his interactions with the town.
The artwork aims to celebrate the everyday characters of regional Australia. The moving canvas will send these messages across the country, hoping to surprise and pique the interest of it’s viewers, and to cast a light on a facet of Australian culture that is often overlooked.