Hellen van Meene’s portraits of girls and young women are at once otherworldly and grounded in the reality of adolescence, that weird and liminal state. Rich in narrative potential, they gesture gently toward art history and fairy tales: the princess and the pea, maybe, or Goldilocks. In one image, a girl holds a plate of something – flour? sugar? fairy dust? – aloft and blows a puff of fine powder toward her older sister or friend. Sunlight catches the particles, and we await a transformation.
Sunlight, along with those beautiful girls, is a key ingredient in van Meene’s creations: her deft use of natural light has drawn comparisons to 17th-century Dutch portraiture. And unlike many of her contemporaries, she tends to make smallish prints – most here are 16×16 inches – so that there is an intimacy to viewing them.
Hellen van Meene: Five, on view at Yancey Richardson Gallery through January 23, follows on the heels of a retrospective of 90 of her photographs at the Hague Museum of Photography in The Netherlands. In June, her book The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits was published by Aperture. The title of the book is a line from the W.H. Auden poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” about the swift passage of time (“Time will have his fancy, to-morrow or to-day,”). And indeed, her subjects, some perfectly poised, others a little less comfortable in their own skins, have one foot in childhood and a toe in the world of adults.
In no less than half a dozen of the images here, a smooth wall of hair completely covers the girls’ faces. Those photographs struck a chord, a memory of hiding behind the protective curtain of my own hair as a shy teenager. But van Meene’s photographs are rarely straightforward. Those images are uncanny as well, and her subjects have powers – of levitation, of metamorphosis – that we can only guess at.