Visceral thresholds: Exploring the abstract inner-world of Helena La Rota López

Colombian multidisciplinary artist Helena La Rota López discusses her strange and mesmerising performance practice.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Mar 24, 2022

Visual artist Helena La Rota López has a rather varied, yet altogether distinct practice. Her performance art pieces especially can be quite intense, even frighteningly so. And yet, there is no villain here, no threat made and no gesture of violence. She sways and flows through an abstract, interpretive world that is inhabited solely by her, exploring deep facets of the human psyche. Discussing her work, she tells STIR, “Art eases our communion with despair and redeems human misery through beauty. It gives us the means to face horror without flinching and closing our eyes. Artists use open minds and pitiless gazes –not in the sense of indifference, but rather, in an attempt at gathering the courage to transcend pity, and embrace a higher form of compassion: empathy. When the raw empathy of another’s emotions, sensations, or experiences is channelled and etched through instruments, a work of art is created; it springs to life. That is how I reconcile the roles that grace and violence play in my own artistic expression, by exploring the blurred edges of humanity and how we define it.”

Psyche's Metamorphosis ~ Morpho helena, 2021, silverpoint on mineral paper | Helena La Rota López | STIRworld
Psyche's Metamorphosis ~ Morpho helena, 2021, silverpoint on mineral paper Image: Helena La Rota López, Courtesy of the artist

La Rota López hails from Bogotá, Colombia, and mentions that she always held a desire to shine onstage as an actress and classical singer. However, her explorations into outward beauty would only drive her towards a careful and involved research into internal “ugliness”, as she puts it. She spent time at Sarah Lawrence, wherein she would satisfy her curiosity for literature, art history and astronomy, eventually coming to shape them into tools and iconographical sources to apply within her explorations. La Rota López says, “I came to New York in order to pursue a theatre career, but the reality of the industry and the quiet contemplative freedom of individual art making changed my plans, or at least re-contextualised my profession.” She would spend time at the college’s program in Florence, thinking to enhance her classical singing, but would also develop a fascination for printmaking. After returning to New York, the artist would plunge herself into painting classes alongside music, learning to compose in each field, and trying to meld the two.

Gratia, 2021, etching | Helena La Rota López | STIRworld
Gratia, 2021, etching Image: Helena La Rota López, Courtesy of the artist

Discussing her further creative journey, La Rota López tells STIR, “I later pursued an MFA in painting, tracked along anatomy, at the New York Academy of Art, naively thinking I could restrict myself to painting as my calling. I was mesmerised with it until along came sculpture, which I explored with enthusiasm. For my thesis project, I finally came to terms with my theatre background and reconciled it with the traditional art techniques I had learned, creating a performative installation through the process.” Returning to an earlier assertion, the artist truly is multidisciplinary, and far more so than most who could make a claim to such a title. As of now, she enjoys pursuing her practice at her home studio in Queens.

The Labyrinth Performance Still No. 3, 2019, digital photograph | Helena La Rota López | STIRworld
The Labyrinth Performance Still No. 3, 2019, digital photograph Image: Maegan Sundlie, Courtesy of the artist

Explaining her practice the Colombian artist says, “I like to describe my work as a tightrope walk between the clinical and the romantic; a constellation of the languages and materials of multiple disciplines, and their expressive potential. Through installation, performance, and visual art techniques such as sculpture, painting, drawing, and printmaking, I seek to weave spaces of introspection, invocation and curiosity.” The artist’s research stems from the mutations of boundaries between traditional binaries such as violence and tenderness, beauty and the grotesque, anonymity and identity, the masculine and the feminine, and the self and the other. This focuses her construction of liminal spaces as fragile suspensions of reality wherein absurdity takes hold with a manic force all its own. Such are the kinds of spaces within which even monsters may dwell upon themselves and their experiences, and tell stories that speak to the complexities of human nature rather than easy, convenient binaries. She continues, “These places are like bridges or thresholds; they are places where we might find truths about ourselves through the eyes of another. Monsters evoke an awareness that is thrilling and uneasy, of the fluidity between the language of the sensate view of the world that surrounds us, and the instinctive view of the world inside us – they speak cruel truths through pleasant lies. My purpose is to relay meanings from one side to the other, using paradox and distortion as an empathetic artistic device.”

05 mins watch The Labyrinth Dance, 2019, video recording of solo performance| Helena La Rota López | STIRworld
The Labyrinth Dance, 2019, video recording of solo performance Video: Ian Kent (cinematography) and Helena La Rota López (edition); Courtesy of the artist

One of the artist’s most striking projects is The Bestiary, which needs to be seen to be believed: it is, in a word, mesmerising. The project was born from rituals La Rota López devised on her own. It is, in many ways, an exercise in ownership. She explains, “I take ownership of my space by starting at the root: the space inside me, beginning from the base of my spine to the pit of my belly until my agency reaches my fingertips. The hardest parts to subdue are the contents of my head; they take work to untangle and spin into shape. I then use them to visualise the necessary details so I can craft them with my hands. I extend my roots outside myself, and then weave them into movement. Those vectors guide how I transform the space around me and claim it, aided by song and dance. In my personal life, I have done this with a succession of bedrooms and studios, my lovers’ dwellings, and the apartment I now call home. When my essence is knitted into the space, the nesting is complete, and I feel safe. This ritual is amplified when I build an installation; the creatures and stories that exist within me find their space too.”

 The artist Helena La Rota López at her studio, 2019  | Helena La Rota López | STIRworld
The artist Helena La Rota López at her studio, 2019 Image: Courtesy of the artist

The physical space within which La Rota López performs iterations of The Bestiary becomes a sort of psychic space as well: it takes on the form of a labyrinth, inspired by the Cretan myth: a place where one may find themselves lost, to wander forever – a metaphor for our own psyche – but also where one will most certainly encounter a monster of sorts. The artist provides further exposition, telling STIR, “For most of history, we have championed reason as the redeeming quality of humanity, but it has also become our deadliest weapon. Humans assume monsters to be frightful, violent things, when in actuality it is our presumed moral superiority that often turns us into precisely that which we fear or revile. We are scared, at once, of the potentials of the unknown, as well as the pain of what we do know; what we cannot see and what we don’t want to see. It is these fears that I personify into creatures. The monster in my labyrinth was made of the things I am most afraid of: loss and absence of the ones I love, but also of myself; of madness, violence, and self-loathing. In her, I found a counterweight: fierce love and a will to be found and redeemed. I became fond of her over time as she materialised and gained freedom with the devising of her space.” La Rota López’s space may be primal and raw, but it is by no means foreboding. It invites us in, as visitors and viewers, to engage with its monster and its rituals. So come along, and let us visit the visceral world of Helena La Rota López.

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