Hellen van Meene

Hellen van Meene was born in 1977, in Alkmaar, Netherlands. From 1992 to 1996, she studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam, and spent a year at the College of Art in Edinburgh (1995).

The photographs of the Dutch artist predominantly show young people. Yet she is not interested in capturing specific age or social groups through documentation. Rather, she directs her gaze at transitory phenomena, those bodily phenomena that become pereceivable with the change from adolescence. Van Meene’s models are mostly girls or also boys with an androgynous look, whom she approaches in the street and photographs in their familiar surroundings: at home, at school, in their neighborhood.

Between 1992 and 2000, in the context of a project set-up to take several years, Meene also took pictures of her models for an extended period of time. Changes, developments, and the process of growing up become traceable in various stages and in their temporal dimension through these serially organized photos. The moment of staged photo shooting remains part of the picture.

Since 2000, van Meene has increasingly left familiar surroundings and has found her models in various countries of Europe as well as in Japan, Russia, or Morocco. The technique of making contact in the public realm of urban space has remained the first step to recruit the models whose adolescence again seems visibly staged in these picture series. The photos – they are all in color – are kept in rectangular, smaller formats that demand more intimate attention from the viewer, in accordance with the theme.

Van Meene’s photographs play with familiar experiences of seeing and also draw on other artistic genres. The portraits with their often decorative and two-dimensional background contain art historical allusions, referring, for example, to paintings such as Botticelli’s depictions of Venus, spring allegories, Millais’Ophelia, or the allegories of Vermeer. Beyond these allusions, van Meene’s portraits also prove to be atmospheric presentations. They engage in the portrait-like showing of nameable phenomena of bodily transition and in their allegorizing within the pictorial context as if this were a boundary-crossing of the medium chosen. The staging of the figures captures the models’ hair, skin, and clothes that, as to their colors, patterns, or structure, are always set in close relation to the space or the spatial details shown and to the selected props. The fine divisions of veins and blood vessels shining through the pale skin of a young girl, for example, are continued in a treetop in the background. The bluish hue of a naked back resembles the blue walls of the model’s room. The modified pattern of a jacket may reappear on a wall. The folds of a dress sometimes continue the movement of whirling long hair. The entire pictorial system is defined by those physical attributes that appear so characteristic of the process of growing up.

The artist always decides on the postures in which the youths are shown: mostly standing, sometimes sitting, occasionally with a touch of teenage attitude. Yet individuality is preserved through the close focus on the model. Most pictures show only the head and shoulder area; rarely does one see the hands. The gaze is often directed into the distance. The viewer finds little expressiveness in the faces – still, they are not without radiance. Instead, the facial expression is mild and quiet and seems to be directed inward, focusing on the person her- or himself. Despite the sometimes obvious physical discomfort which the photos convey, despite the pimples, the poorly dyed hair, or the perhaps unorthodox and undefined taste in fashion, the young models always radiate a certain grace, owed to the subtle photographic staging.

Van Meene documents the omnipresence of phenomena of growing up, of an emerging sexual identity, of the »turning into a face,« and the physical development of youths. Her untitled portraits do not rely on the conveying of individuality, but rather stand for phenomena of transition and change, even if these may be experienced as highly individual, dramatic, and lonely processes. Since 2004, van Meene has also taken pictures of pregnant minors and of young mothers – who stand for a new beginning, although they themselves have not yet completed the process of growing up.

Since the early 2000s, van Meene’s photos have been shown in national and international museums. Among her solo exhibitions are shows at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (2002) and at the Museum Folkwang (2006/07). Among the thematic and group exhibitions that have shown van Meene’s work are exhibitions at the Neues Museum Nürnberg, at the Musée de Marrakech, and at the Art Institute of Chicago (all in 2005).

Hellen van Meele lives and works in Heiloo, Netherlands.

Selected Literature

Frames Revisited – Masterpieces of Dutch portrait photography shown in antique frames from the Collection Frits Lugt, hg. v. Willem van Zoetendaal, Paris 2005

In Sight: Contemporary Dutch Photography from the Collection of the Stedelijk Museum: Ausst.-Kat. Art Institute of Chicago, hg. v. H. Visser, Amsterdam 2005

Bush, K.: Hellen van Meene – Portraits, New York 2004

Schampers, K.: Hellen van Meene, Japan Series, Köln 2002

Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014

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